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

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. Over the course of a semester, English teacher Wendy Olsen had perpetrated negative racial stereotypes and Principal Keven Wynkoop had shielded her from responsibility. We hope that detailing our family’s experience will help make the complaint process easier for fellow Seattle Public Schools (SPS) students and their families to navigate.

Our case took ten months from beginning to end. Several weeks after The Seattle Times ran an article about the district’s findings, at least two other families filed complaints. Shortly after those complaints were filed, the district placed Principal Wynkoop on administrative leave without specifying its reasons.

This was an important step, but only a partial one. Wendy Olsen continues to teach at Ballard High. Acting Principal Dr. Joseph Williams III, a Black man, faces an uphill battle in trying to change an entrenched culture. Perhaps most glaringly, none of the district’s determinations 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

Mary Shelley’s 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. For example, one prompt asked why oppressed people “do bad things.” One student wrote that oppressed people “turn to drugs and alcohol.” Another affirmed that “only sports can give them purpose.” Other comments asserted 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 Black and Brown people with a subhuman monster, Olsen’s response was to hide behind a wall of tears.

The Frankenstein unit lasted for a month. During this time, Eric Anthony tried to navigate the situation on his own, explaining to Olsen over email that “I am constantly on edge in every class because I am dreading the inevitable problematic discussions being facilitated.” On three separate occasions, he referenced his Latino identity and asked Olsen point-blank whether she thought of him as a monster. He was greeted with silence each time.

We contacted Olsen ourselves on December 3, 2020 and spent the months of December and January trying to work with Olsen and Wynkoop. We sent Olsen numerous reading materials, resources for teachers, and academic articles. One of Olsen’s teacher colleagues helped create a roadmap to help fix the harmful statements made in class and guide a more productive discussion. Olsen ghosted her colleague as she’d ghosted us, and Wynkoop effectively sided with Olsen by removing my son from her class. 

Olsen’s colleague objected to this decision: “If I am understanding the situation correctly, he has done nothing wrong and both he and his family want him to stay in the class. What message is it sending if a student has the courage to speak up about the way they and others were harmed by a teacher, if the student’s family and the teacher’s colleagues offer to work with the teacher to repair the harm that was done, and if the response is silence from the teacher and removal of the student by the principal?”

All three of our children work for the NAACP. Their mentor at the NAACP Youth Council told us that we could file a formal complaint with the district. Without the NAACP, we would not have known that the complaint process even exists.

We filled out the forms and filed our complaint on January 31, 2021. After two separate interviews and many clarifying emails, during which my son was questioned in circles and forced to relive his interactions with Olsen over and over again, we received a decision letter on Sept. 17. This initial ruling found Wynkoop guilty of retaliation but not harassment, intimidation, bullying, or discriminination. 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 Wynkoop and Olsen’s actions substantially interfered with our son’s education and created a hostile learning environment. This opened the doors to the press coverage, the subsequent student complaints, and the district’s abrupt decision to place Wynkoop on administrative leave on Nov. 24, the day before Thanksgiving. On Dec. 6, the district issued a final ruling on the Frankenstein curriculum itself.

Here is the advice we can offer based on our year-long ordeal.

1. Use the words the district uses. 

The exact phrasing 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, interrupting us if our answers didn’t align with his exact question. We couldn’t address anything he didn’t specifically ask.

It wasn’t until after a followup interview, arranged by our NAACP advocates, that we were able to communicate that the teacher’s and principal’s behavior “created an environment that interfered with our son’s learning.” This was the wording that allowed our case to proceed.

The district ultimately avoided the charge of discrimination by means of deliberately narrow language-lawyering. “Specifically,” said SPS Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Noel Treat, “you did not allege facts that the actions were taken against your son because of his race.”

Read the district’s policies, and use their exact words to file your claim.

2. Document your interactions. 

As much as possible, conduct all communications over email. When we first raised our concerns with the teacher and the principal, they suggested a call to discuss what 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 yet another verbal assault. So we asked the school to communicate exclusively through email.

This turned out to be the best decision we could have made. Everything was documented. Olsen was caught in lies. Wynkoop was shown to have had many available options that he chose not to take.

Protect your student. Keep a written record of everything that isn’t emailed, with dates and details. The investigator will ask for it.

3. Bring your people. 

If discrimination applies, consider filing a complaint directly with the NAACP. This will give the NAACP permission to discuss the case with you and advocate for you if there’s a role for them. Consider reaching out to the NAACP Youth Council or any other 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 critical piece of advice to “bring your people” to district meetings. These “people” might include a teacher that understands the situation and is an advocate for your child or a friend who works in law or education.

Our advocates, with our permission, replied directly to the district’s emails when it was clear that officials were giving us the runaround. Advocates sat in on the second interview, and one of them pulled up the exact wording for the policies in question while we were talking, compelling the investigator to let me address them. The other told the investigator point-blank that he would never treat a white family with a non-racial complaint the way she was watching him treat us and that she would be speaking with his boss. It markedly altered how he spoke to me during the remainder of that interview.

We are incredibly grateful for the support and mentorship from people who have been through processes like these before: Rita Green, education chair of Washington, Oregon, Alaska NAACP, Manuela Slye, former Seattle Council PTSA president, 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 frequently skittish about using the word “racism,” and they hate assigning intent to actions.

Even if your case is race-based, look for other policies that may also fit. We won our claim for “harassment, intimidation, and bullying” because the school’s behavior was intentional and interfered substantially with our son’s educational environment.

The district’s final review of our case concluded early this December. This review addressed only the written Frankenstein curriculum and not the in-class discussions that were the specific, documented source of our complaint. The review put forth general resolutions as to how teachers should design classes with racially-charged topics but carefully avoided addressing uncomfortably specific problem areas.

5. Appeal.

Everyone involved in the first round of decision-making works for the district. They may consult outside experts, but they have a built-in conflict of interest due to their employer. While many people within the system want to help and support our kids, the system itself does not support accountability. 

The appeals process turned out to be the easiest part of our journey. After the initial ruling, we had five days to state that we wanted to appeal the decision. The file was then forwarded to an independent hearing examiner who did not work within 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 been previous successful complaints about them.

Your formal complaint may not directly change things for your student if it is the first of its kind. But you are laying the groundwork for the next student. You are not alone, and if you act, neither are the students who come after.

The South Seattle Emerald is committed to holding space for a variety of viewpoints within our community, with the understanding that differing perspectives do not negate mutual respect amongst community members.

The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the contributors on this website do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the Emerald or official policies of the Emerald.

Emi Ponce de Souza is a Mexican immigrant and a Seattle-based neonatologist with three children, two of whom are still in the Seattle Public Schools system.

An-Lon Chen

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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