Lakeside School, No Longer Facing Racial-Discrimination Charge, Still Goes on Trial

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It's been four years since elite Lakeside School invited--then disinvited--conservative author Dinesh D'Souza to speak on its leafy campus. Yet the intense racial rift that episode exposed continues to play out. The latest development is a trial, beginning this week in King County Superior Court, stemming from a suit brought by fired African-American teacher Regina Higgins. Without the jury even being picked yet, Lakeside has already won a partial victory.

As Judge Carol Schapira reiterated this morning during pretrial motions, the trial will not be "about race, discrimination, or hostile work environment." That's because Schapira already ruled against Higgins' claims concerning those matters. Responding to a request for summary judgment brought by the school, Schapira opined during an April hearing that there were "insufficient facts" to establish discrimination.

"There's no evidence of a comparator except in Ms. Higgins' mind," Schapira said, explaining in the next breath what she meant by a "comparator." She continued: "I certainly did not see a white teacher who was treated more favorably."

What remains is Higgins' claim that she was illegally retaliated against for her testimony in support of two other African-American teachers, Chance Sims and Novella Coleman, who filed suit against the school in 2006, shortly after the D'Souza affair. (Sims eventually settled and Coleman had her claims dismissed.)

"If we fantasize for a moment that Ms. Higgins is your average white guy, 'he' could still be having a problem because he testified against Lakeside," Schapira said this morning.

Lakeside vehemently denies that it fired Higgins, initially hired in 1999 and earning $82,777 a year before she was let go in 2009, out of retaliation. In legal papers, it cites a litany of grievances against Higgins, dating back almost to when she was hired. The complaints include gossiping about students, showing favoritism, missing meetings, and failing to report one student's sexual harassment of another. If even some of that is true, then what seems oddest is that Lakeside kept Higgins on the payroll for 10 years.

Higgins, moreover, apparently liked the school well enough to send two daughters there, including one who is now a Lakeside sophomore.

At the same time, it's not hard to believe Higgins' claim that Head of School Bernie Noe and other administrators "shunned" her after her testimony. Lakeside has repeatedly shown that it has a limited tolerance for dissent and an inclination to purge the school of perceived undesirables (including pot-smoking students).

What seems most tragic, however, is yet more indication that Lakeside's unprecedented effort to increase diversity, launched with a new "mission focus" in 2003 and supported with a multimillion-dollar fund-raising campaign, has gone badly awry. Lakeside says in legal papers that its percentage of minority staff members and students has grown, but two parents who called SW (one with a child currently at the school, one with a child who recently graduated) say there are only one or two African-American teachers left.

Asked for confirmation, Lakeside spokesperson Daiga Galins says the school employs seven African-American "professionals in an instructional capacity," without saying specifically how many are teachers. She adds that the school continues to be "proactive" in its efforts to hire more staff of color.

UPDATE: Galins clarifies that Lakeside has three full-time African American teachers (as opposed to advisers and other staff who work with students). She also insists that the school's diversity efforts have not gone awry, noting that 47 percent of its student body and 17 percent of its faculty are now minority members.

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