by Ari Robin McKenna
Students of Color who attend Ballard High School (BHS) say they felt less safe at school after an ad hoc group called “Friends of Keven Wynkoop” ran a full-page ad in the Sunday Seattle Times in February calling on the district to reinstate the former BHS principal. Wynkoop had been put on paid administrative leave after the district found he had retaliated against a student.
The ad, which cost $9,850, suggests that their concerns about Wynkoop’s treatment of Students of Color have been dismissed, six Students of Color told the Emerald.
The district found that Wynkoop violated District Policy 3027, the Prohibition of Harassment, Intimidation, or Bullying (HIB), against a Student of Color. He was also found to have retaliated against that student — a violation of district, state, and federal policies. At least three other unrelated complaints have since been filed with the district against Wynkoop.
Still, in the ad, 107 people listed their names in support of his reinstatement, including parents, Ballard residents, at least 16 current and former Ballard High School staff, and three former Seattle Public Schools (SPS) board directors. It demanded that Seattle Public School Superintendent Brent Jones reinstate him.
In September 2021, SPS ruled after an appeal to an HIB complaint that Wynkoop had “substantially interfered” with the education of Eric Anthony Souza-Ponce, a former BHS student who identifies as Latino. Souza-Ponce expressed concern that his comparative literature teacher, Wendy Olsen, was both making and inviting comparisons between ethnic minorities and Mary Shelley’s famously grotesque, subhuman monster made by Frankenstein. The character is more than 8 feet tall and murders four people within the novel.
Souza-Ponce’s family tried for three months to get the school to review the problem with the class; instead, Wynkoop decided to transfer Souza-Ponce into another English class. By doing so, the SPS investigation determined, Wynkoop had both retaliated against and created a “hostile learning environment” for the student. The SPS investigation also found that Olsen violated the district’s HIB policy. Souza-Ponce’s mother, Emi Ponce de Souza, later recounted the complaint and appeal process in an Emerald article.
Another complaint was filed by Chelan Crutcher, the mother of a ninth grader who was sexually assaulted by another BHS student. When a judge-ordered protection plan to protect her daughter at school was repeatedly violated by the assaulter, Crutcher sent a string of emails to Wynkoop. She didn’t receive any response.
“It was crazy to me; it was just insane that he didn’t seem to care at all. It was bizarre,” Crutcher said.
She filed three police reports after the initial HIB. Meanwhile, students were protesting against “a culture of sexual misconduct and harassment” at BHS. Recently, the student who assaulted Crutcher’s daughter assaulted another female student on school grounds and is reportedly no longer at BHS.
“When you don’t hold a kid accountable, and you don’t tell him, ‘Hey, this behavior is wrong,’ the message he’s getting is: ‘I haven’t done anything wrong.’ It’s really rotten,” Crutcher said.
Parent Richelle Dickerson filed an HIB complaint, alleging Wynkoop intentionally “obfuscated, misled students and district staff and parents, and shrugged off parental concerns.”
Dickerson told the Emerald that Wynkoop’s inaction and avoidance of responsibility “resulted in the effect of substantially interfering with my child’s ability to learn and be engaged at school, and created an intimidating and threatening environment.” Her child, Riley, who identifies as “mixed” and uses they/them pronouns, has stopped attending classes at BHS.
The Emerald recently interviewed six BHS Students of Color about what attending BHS has been like, and how the ad landed on them.
One student, a senior who uses she/her pronouns and identifies as “half-Black, half-white,” says she has no confidence in how Wynkoop handles issues involving sexual assault or racism. She’s chosen to remain anonymous because “there’s such a hostile atmosphere around the whole topic of our principal, people get really defensive and upset.”
She describes being frustrated living in “a super-white neighborhood where parents don’t really teach their kids” about race.
“As a Person of Color, you hold a lot of responsibility to educate your peers that don’t understand, which is nerve-wracking, because you don’t want to give them the wrong information. It’s uncomfortable,” she said.
She says she thinks the people who signed the ad in The Seattle Times aren’t actually listening.
“They don’t see an issue, because they’ve never had to deal with being oppressed, because they’re white people and they’ve never had to face this head-on,” she said. “It feels like a punch in the stomach that students are sticking their necks out to say, ‘He’s not a great person, he’s not great for Students of Color.’ And these parents are like, ‘But he’s just so nice; we like him!’”
A South Asian senior, whose pronouns are she/her, fears backlash for publicly criticizing Wynkoop.
“I’m worried that people are going to come up to me and have these discussions with me that maybe I’m not quite ready for. Like, ‘Do you hate school that much? Do you hate Ballard that much?’” she said.
It’s challenging being a Student of Color at BHS, she says.
“I try not to think about that I look different, constantly.” She says a lot of people are afraid to acknowledge racism. “So you end up having all these Kids of Color coming to the forefront and speaking for everybody and trying to convince people to join in caring about these issues, which is super tiring. No one’s actually listening to you. It just makes it a horrible environment.”
She found the ad in The Times “kind of horrifying.”
“They’re not listening to any kids, any Teachers of Color. Lots of kids have had firsthand experiences with this principal, and [those who signed the ad] are just saying, ‘Oh, he’s not a bad guy. He’s not a bad guy. Let him back in.’ We are repeatedly trying to tell them that this isn’t okay. We’re struggling with having him here,” she said.
A junior — who uses she/her pronouns and identifies as Latinx — moved to Seattle within the last few years from Central America. She says before starting at Ballard, she had been assured by Wynkoop that Students of Color were safe and taken care of. She gradually learned this wasn’t true, saying Wynkoop told a “white lie” to her family about providing Students of Color with a safe environment.
“Maybe he said that just to give out a good impression, but it’s never correct to lie to people,” she said.
She frequently faces racist stereotypes. People assume her dad is a gardener or that her family comes from a small, poor village (her father is in tech and she attended a private international school in a major city). She considers this an annoyance akin to having to constantly remind teachers how to pronounce her name, and says it doesn’t impact her deeply, but some students and teachers have gotten to her. She recalls classmates mocking her, asking how it was for her parents to jump across the border.
She also remembers a teacher suggesting at the beginning of the year that she repeat Algebra 2 instead of continuing to attend her honors class because “you don’t know anything” because “you learned math in another country.” (She got an A in Algebra 2.) She felt she needed to switch out of the class because of the way the teacher made her feel — not because of the difficulty of the math.
She says some parents are supporting Wynkoop because they just don’t know what’s going on.
“They’re like, ‘Oh, poor guy. He needs his job back,’” she said. “They are just not listening. The parents should listen to the kids, because it’s the kids that go there and experience it.”
Jagger Barrington — a biracial senior who identifies as Black and white — says he’s always felt “othered” at BHS, and that “it’s always been a struggle.” Wynkoop devoted energy to maintaining the positive image of the school without addressing many of the underlying problems Students of Color face, he says.
Barrington says he’s always felt like BHS’s large white population of students can be very ostracizing.
“Most people point out what’s different about you when you’re trying to make small talk, and it just doesn’t feel good,” he said. “It’s exhausting. You hear the same comments about your hair.”
This feeling of being othered ramped up when he signed up for his first AP class.
“I definitely feel like I’ve been treated differently by teachers, compared to other students. Students of Color are led to believe that they don’t belong in these kinds of classes,” Barrington said. “I tried [taking an AP class], and I always felt like I was being picked on a lot in that class. It was really mainly students; teachers are a lot more closeted.”
Barrington says the ad increased his feeling of isolation.
“There’s people backing [Wynkoop] up, countless adults in our community, saying that what he’s doing is okay. It just feels like I’m outnumbered,” he said. “There are so few Students of Color — especially African Americans — and just knowing that not only am I sort of alone as a student, I’m also alone as well if I wanted to bring my issues forward to the people in power at my school.”
Anya Souza-Ponce, a Latina sophomore, attends the school that her older brother, Eric Anthony, graduated from last year. Anya specifies that there are teachers “that we, as Students of Color, know that they want to support us” and “go out on a limb for us.” She sees their challenges.
“The problem is, they are working through a system that doesn’t listen to them, and it doesn’t listen to us,” Anya said. “And their co-workers don’t listen to them, and their principal didn’t listen to them.”
Anya says the atmosphere at BHS is exhausting.
“I go into rooms, and as soon as I say, ‘Hey, this feels unsafe, what you’re saying, right?’ Now I just get argued against,” she said. “I’m just trying to be a student. I’m just trying to learn, and I can’t be learning from having to defend myself and my people every single day. It’s a lot.”
Anya went on to describe an interaction between a white student, a Student of Color, and their teacher that she says is almost commonplace at BHS.
“There’ll be classes where a student will call another student a racial slur. Then, the Student of Color will be like, ‘Hey, why’d you do that?’ And then the teacher will actually get mad at the Student of Color and punish the Student of Color for getting mad instead of saying anything about the actual slur,” she said. “The slur was said in their presence, right in front of them, and the teacher will punish this Student of Color who got mad at it.
“I don’t really know anything about [Wynkoop] personally, honestly, like he could be a perfectly nice guy, but he has hurt us in this way that can just not be ignored,” she said.
Anya is concerned about the message the ad in The Seattle Times sent to Students of Color at BHS, after the principal had already been officially found in violation against a Student of Color.
“I go into school, and I look at these teachers and the staff members that were comfortable enough admitting that they don’t care. The district’s already found that this man is out there harming Students of Color on purpose,” she said. “They care more about their buddy than about the Students of Color that are getting sacrificed for their buddy. And that just feels so unsafe and it feels so dangerous, and it almost feels like they’re trying to provoke hostility towards Students of Color.”
Riley Dickerson, who recently left Ballard during junior year to pursue her GED, says a lot of their grievances were linked, specifically, to Wynkoop.
“They stemmed from him just covering everything up, covering up his own faults,” Dickerson said. “Stuff has just been covered up by Mr. Wynkoop that it’s like, what’s even the point in talking about it?”
Dickerson says they grew increasingly angry about how serious accusations were being handled, and eventually, was over school entirely.
“I just didn’t want to deal with his shit anymore. If you’re not going to be taken care of — not just me, but my friends — then why do I want to deal with your stuff and go to your school and give you support for something that you aren’t even doing?” they said.
Eric Anthony Souza-Ponce, currently a freshman at Western Washington University, has had some time to reflect on the events.
He says the ad in The Seattle Times “really is just a gross show of force.”
“They’re organized now against those that they feel are responsible for their ‘native son’ being gone,” he said.
Currently, former Assistant Principal Joseph Williams III has assumed the role of acting principal. A decision about Keven Wynkoop’s status by the district is pending.
Editors’ Note: A previous version of this article misgendered a student and was updated on 03/18/2022 with the correct pronouns. The Emerald apologizes for this egregious error.
The article was also updated to clarify that the district found Wynkoop had retaliated against a student, not the board as previously stated.
Ari Robin McKenna worked as an educator and curriculum developer in Brooklyn, New York; Douala, Cameroon; Busan, South Korea; Quito, Ecuador; and Seattle, Washington, before settling in South Seattle. He writes about education for the Emerald. You can contact him through his website.
📸 Featured Image: (Photo: Ari Robin McKenna with editing by Emerald Staff)
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