NOTICE: Combatting a Hostile Learning Environment in Seattle Public Schools
by Emi Ponce de Souza with An-Lon Chen
A little over a year ago, my son Eric Anthony Souza-Ponce, then a high school student, filed a formal complaint against Ballard High School. Over the course of a semester, English teacher Wendy Olsen had perpetrated negative racial stereotypes and Principal Keven Wynkoop shielded her from responsibility. We hope that detailing our family’s experience will help make the complaint process easier for other Seattle Public Schools (SPS) students and their families.
Our business lasted ten months from start to finish. Several weeks after the Seattle Times published an article about the district’s findings, at least two other families filed complaints. Shortly after these complaints were filed, the district placed Principal Wynkoop on administrative leave without specifying the reasons.
It was an important step, but only partial. Wendy Olsen continues to teach at Ballard High. Acting Director Dr. Joseph Williams III, a black man, faces an uphill battle trying to change an entrenched culture. Perhaps most glaringly, none of the district’s decisions addressed the issue of race. Trying to prove a school-wide history of racial microaggressions was like nailing Jell-O to the wall.
Summary of the case
by Mary Shelley Frankenstein is not inherently racist, but Olsen did in his comparative literature class by drawing awkward parallels with oppression in modern America. For example, one prompt asked why oppressed people “do bad things.” One student wrote that oppressed people “turn to drugs and alcohol.” Another claimed that “only sport can give them meaning”. Other comments claimed that they “will turn to violence” and that “oppressed people have no identity”. These racial stereotypes have little to do with Mary Shelley’s original text. When my Latino son pointed out to Olsen that she was comparing blacks and browns to a subhuman monster, Olsen’s response was to hide behind a wall of tears.
the Frankenstein the unit lasted a month. Meanwhile, Eric Anthony tried to handle the situation on his own, telling Olsen via email that “I’m constantly nervous in every class because I dread the inevitable facilitated problematic discussions.” On three occasions, he referenced his Latino identity and asked Olsen point-blank if she considered him a freak. He was greeted with silence each time.
We contacted Olsen ourselves on December 3, 2020 and spent December and January trying to work with Olsen and Wynkoop. We have sent Olsen many reading materials, teacher resources, and scholarly articles. One of Olsen’s fellow teachers helped create a roadmap to help correct harmful statements made in class and guide more productive discussion. Olsen ghosted his colleague like she ghosted us, and Wynkoop effectively sided with Olsen by removing my son from his class.
Olsen’s colleague objected to this decision: “If I understand the situation correctly, he did nothing wrong and he and his family want him to stay in the class. What message does it send if a student has the courage to speak up about how he and others have been hurt by a teacher, if the student’s family and the teacher’s colleagues offer to work with the teacher to repair the harm that has been done, and if the answer is the silence of the teacher and the dismissal of the student by the principal? »
Our three children work for the NAACP. Their mentor at the NAACP Youth Council told us we could file a formal complaint with the district. Without the NAACP, we wouldn’t have known the complaints process even existed.
We completed the forms and filed our complaint on January 31, 2021. After two separate interviews and numerous clarifying emails, during which my son was interrogated in circles and forced to relive his interactions with Olsen over and over again, we received a decision letter on September 17. This first ruling found Wynkoop guilty of retaliation but not of harassment, intimidation, intimidation or discrimination. We appealed, and on September 29, 2021, an attorney chosen but not employed by the district ruled that Wynkoop was guilty of “harassment, intimidation and bullying” as well as retaliation and that the actions of Wynkoop and Olsen materially interfered with our son’s education and created a hostile learning environment. This opened the doors to media coverage, ensuing student complaints, and the district’s abrupt decision to place Wynkoop on administrative leave on Nov. 24, the day before Thanksgiving. On December 6, the district issued a final decision on the Frankenstein course itself.
Here are the tips we can offer based on our one year test.
1. Use the words the district uses.
The exact formulation of the complaint is crucial.
The investigator initially assigned to our case emphasized that he was “just a fact-gatherer” and would not be the one to judge those facts. But during our interview, he repeatedly limited what we could say in response to his questions, cutting us off if our answers didn’t match his exact question. We couldn’t address anything that he didn’t specifically ask for.
It wasn’t until a follow-up interview, arranged by our NAACP advocates, that we were able to communicate that the behavior of the teacher and principal “created an environment that interfered with our son’s learning. “. It was the wording that allowed our case to proceed.
The district ultimately avoided the discrimination charge by means of a deliberately narrow language attorney. “Specifically,” said SPS Deputy Superintendent of Human Resources Noel Treat, “you did not allege that the actions were taken against your son because of his race.”
Read the district policies and use their exact words to file your claim.
2. Document your interactions.
Whenever possible, conduct all communications by email. When we first raised our concerns with the teacher and principal, they suggested a call to discuss what had happened. We avoided the call for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that it would have been cruel to subject our son to another verbal assault. We have therefore asked the school to communicate exclusively by e-mail.
It turned out to be the best decision we could have made. Everything was documented. Olsen was caught in lies. Wynkoop was shown to have many options available which it chose not to take.
Protect your student. Keep a written record of anything not emailed, with dates and details. The investigator will ask.
3. Bring your people.
If discrimination occurs, consider filing a complaint directly with the NAACP. This will give the NAACP permission to discuss the case with you and defend you if there is a role for them. Consider contacting the NAACP Youth Council or any local chapter of a similar organization to have someone sit with you for your interview.
Our advocates arranged a meeting with the leaders of the teachers’ union, who were sympathetic and gave us the essential advice to “bring your people” to district meetings. These “people” may include a teacher who understands the situation and is advocating for your child, or a friend who works in law or education.
Our attorneys, with our permission, responded directly to emails from the district when it was clear that officials were turning our heads. Lawyers attended the second interview, and one of them extracted the exact wording of the policies in question as we spoke, compelling the investigator to let me address them. The other told the investigator bluntly that he would never treat a white family with a non-racial complaint the way they watched him treat us and talk with his boss. This significantly changed the way he spoke to me for the rest of this interview.
We are extremely grateful for the support and mentorship of people who have gone through processes like these: Rita Green, Education Chair of Washington, Oregon, Alaska NAACP, Manuela Slye, Past Chair of the Seattle Council PTSA, and Jon Greenberg, ethnic studies educator and co-founder of the NAACP Youth Council.
4. Cast a wide net when filing complaints.
Large organizations are often reluctant to use the word “racism” and hate to attribute intent to actions.
Even if your case is based on race, research other policies that may also be appropriate. We won our “harassment, intimidation and bullying” claim because the school’s behavior was intentional and significantly interfered with our son’s educational environment.
The District’s final review of our case was completed in early December. This examination focused only on the writings Frankenstein program and not the class discussions which were the specific and documented source of our complaint. The review offered general resolutions on how teachers should design lessons with racially oriented topics, but carefully avoided addressing specific uncomfortable issues.
Everyone involved in the first round of decision work for the district. They can consult outside experts, but they have an inherent conflict of interest due to their employer. While many people within the system want to help and support our children, the system itself does not support accountability.
The appeal process turned out to be the easiest part of our journey. After the initial decision, we had five days to declare that we wanted to appeal the decision. The file was then forwarded to an independent reviewer who did not work in the district.
6. Remember that progress is cumulative.
We were told early in the process that due to contractual stipulations, it is very difficult for the district to remove a staff member unless there have previously been successful complaints about them.
Your formal complaint may not directly make a difference for your student if it is the first of its kind. But you’re setting the stage for the next student. You are not alone, and if you take action, neither will the students who follow you.
The South Seattle Emerald is committed to maintaining space for a variety of viewpoints within our community, with the understanding that differing viewpoints do not negate mutual respect among community members.
The opinions, beliefs and views expressed by contributors on this website do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and views of Emerald or the official policies of Emerald.
Emi Ponce de Souza is a Mexican immigrant and Seattle-based neonatologist with three children, two of whom are still in the Seattle public school system.
An-Lon Chen is a Chinese-American mother of two biracial children, one of whom is school-aged and attends public schools in Seattle.
📸 Featured image: Eric Anthony Souza-Ponce (Photo courtesy of Emi Ponce de Souza)
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