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OPINION: Fighting a Hostile Learning Environment Within Seattle Public Schools

OPINION: Fighting a Hostile Learning Environment Within Seattle Public Schools

OPINION: Fighting a Hostile Learning Environment Within Seattle Public Schools

by Emi Ponce de Souza with An-Lon Chen

Just over a year ago, my son Eric Anthony Souza-Ponce, then a high school senior, filed a formal complaint against Ballard High School. The semester spanned over the conduct of English teacher Wendy Olsen, who had espoused negative racial stereotypes. Principal Keven Wynkoop was able to shield her from liability. We hope that sharing our family’s story will make it easier for other Seattle Public Schools (SPS), students and their families to navigate the complaint process.

From beginning to completion, our case took ten years. Several weeks after The Seattle Times ran an article about the districts findings, at least two other families filed complaints. The district placed Principal Wynkoop on administrative leaves shortly after the complaints were filed. However, it did not specify why.

Although this was a significant step, it was only a partial one. Wendy Olsen continues to be a teacher at Ballard High. Dr. Joseph Williams III, a Black male, is facing a difficult task to change an established culture. Most strikingly, none the districts’ determinations addressed the question of race. It was like trying to prove a school-wide history racial microaggressions was impossible.

Summary of the Case

Mary Shelleys Frankenstein is not inherently racist, but Olsen made it so in her Comparative Literature class by creating clumsy parallels with oppression in modern-day America. One prompt asked, “Why do oppressed people do bad thing?” One student suggested that oppressed people resort to drugs and alcohol. Another said that only sports could give them purpose. Others stated that they would become violent and that oppressed people don’t have an identity. These racial stereotypes are not in line with Mary Shelleys original text. Olsen’s response to my Latino son who pointed out that she was comparing Black people with a subhuman beast, was to hide behind a wall and cry.

The Frankenstein unit lasted for a month. Eric Anthony attempted to manage the situation on his own. He explained to Olsen via email that he is constantly nervous in class because he is afraid of the inevitable negative discussions being facilitated. He mentioned his Latino identity three times and asked Olsen point blank if she considered him a monster. Each time he was met with silence.

We reached Olsen by phone on December 3, 2020. We spent the months of January and December trying to get to know Wynkoop. We sent Olsen many academic articles, resources for teachers and reading materials. Olsen’s teacher friend helped to create a plan to fix the negative statements in class and facilitate a productive discussion. Olsen ghosted her teacher colleague, and Wynkoop effectively supported Olsen’s decision to remove my son from her class. 

Olsen’s colleague objected. He has done nothing wrong, and both he (and his family) want him to remain in the class. What message does it send if a student speaks up about how they were treated by a teacher? If the teacher responds with silence and then the principal removes the student.

All three of us work for the NAACP. Their mentor at NAACP Youth Council advised us that we could file a formal grievance with the district. We wouldn’t have known there was a complaint process without the NAACP.

We filled out the forms and filed our complaint on January 31, 2021. After two interviews and many clarifying email, my son was questioned in circles, and forced to relive his interactions and interactions with Olsen over the course of several emails. We received a decision letter on September 17. Wynkoop was found guilty of retaliation, but not harassment, intimidation or bullying, and discrimination. We appealed. On September 29, 2021, an independent attorney ruled Wynkoop guilty both of harassment, intimidation and bullying. Wynkoop’s actions had a significant impact on our sons education and created hostile learning environments. This led to student complaints and press coverage. Wynkoop was placed on administrative leave the day before Thanksgiving. On Dec. 6, the district issued a final ruling on the Frankenstein curriculum itself.

Based on our year-long experience, here is the advice that we can offer.

1. Use the language used by the district. 

It is essential to use the exact wording of the complaint.

The initial investigator assigned to our matter stressed that he was only a fact gatherer and not the person to judge these facts. During our interview, however, he limited our responses to his questions and interjected if we didn’t agree with his exact question. We could not answer any question he didn’t ask.

After a followup interview, which was arranged by NAACP advocates, we were able communicate that principals and teachers created an environment that hindered our sons learning. This was the language that allowed us to proceed with our case.

The district was able to avoid the discrimination charge by using narrow language-lawyering. SPS Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Noel Treat said that you didn’t allege facts that the actions were taken in racial discrimination against your son.

You can read the district policies and file your claim using their exact words.

2. Take notes of all interactions. 

All communications should be done via email, as much as possible. The principal and teacher suggested that we call them to discuss our concerns. We decided to avoid the call for several reasons. Not least because it would have been cruel to subject our son yet to another verbal attack. We asked the school to communicate only via email.

This was the best decision that we could have made. Everything was documented. Olsen was caught in lying. Wynkoop was shown that he had many options available to him, but he chose not take them.

Protect your student. Keep a written record with dates and details of everything you have sent to your student. It will be required by the investigator.

3. Bring your friends. 

If discrimination applies, consider filing a complaint directly with the NAACP. This will allow the NAACP to talk with you about the case and advocate for you if they have a role. To have someone with you for your interview, reach out to the NAACP Youth Council and any other local chapter of an equivalent organization.

Our advocates arranged a meeting to meet with the leaders of the teachers union. They were very understanding and gave us the important piece of advice that we should bring your people to the district meetings. These people could include a teacher who understands the situation and can advocate for your child, or a friend who is a lawyer or educator.

When it became clear that officials were giving us the runaround, our advocates reacted directly to emails from the districts with our permission. Advocates were present for the second interview. One of them pulled up the exact words for the policies while we were talking and forced the investigator to allow me to address them. One of them told the investigator that he would never treat a white family suffering from a non-racial problem the same way that he treated us. He also said that she would be talking to his boss. This had a profound impact on how he spoke with me throughout the interview.

We are incredibly thankful for the mentorship and support from people who have gone through similar experiences before: Rita Green, education chair in Washington, Oregon, Alaska NAACP; Manuela Slye, former president of Seattle Council PTSA; and Jon Greenberg ethnic studies educator and cofounder NAACP Youth Council. 

4. You should be open to all complaints. 

Large companies are often reluctant to use the word racism and hate the idea of assigning intent to actions.

Even if you have a case that is race-based, consider other policies that may be appropriate. We won our claim against harassment, intimidation and bullying because the schools’ behavior was deliberate and a significant hindrance to our sons’ education.

The final review of our case by the district was completed in December. This review addressed only the written Frankenstein curriculum and not the in-class discussions that were the specific, documented source of our complaint. Although the review provided general recommendations for teachers on how to design classes that deal with racially charged topics, it did not address specific problems.

See Also

5. Appeal.

Everybody involved in this first round of decision-making is responsible for the district. Although they may consult outside experts, they are subject to a conflict of interest because of their employer. Although there are many people within the system who want to help our kids, the system doesn’t support accountability. 

The appeals process was the most difficult part of our journey. We had five days to appeal the decision after the initial ruling. The file was sent to an independent hearing inspector who did not work in the district.

6. Remember that progress is cumulative. 

We were informed early in the process that it was very difficult for the district of to fire a staff member due to contractual stipulations.

If it is the first complaint, your formal complaint may not have any effect on your student. But you are setting the stage for the next student. You are not alone. The students who follow you are also able to act if they see you as an example.

The South Seattle Emerald is committed allowing everyone to have a voice, and understanding that differences of opinion do not diminish mutual respect among members of the community.

These views, beliefs, opinions, and viewpoints do not necessarily reflect those of the Emerald.

Emi Ponce de Souza is an immigrant from Mexico and a Seattle-based neonatologist. Two of her children are still in Seattle Public Schools.

An-Lon Chen is a Chinese American mother of two biracial children, one of whom is school-aged and attends Seattle Public Schools.

Featured Image: Eric Anthony Souza-Ponce (Photo courtesy of Emi Ponce de Souza)

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