When Ballard High School graduate Eric Anthony Sousa-Ponce first heard his English teacher describe a class assignment – to write about the Frankenstein monster in Mary Shelley’s novel representing oppressed people – he was amazed.
Sousa-Ponce, a Hispanic, asked students to write in an essay about “why oppressed people do bad things,” he said. “It perpetuates that people of color do bad things.”
He and then his parents, starting in December, repeatedly approached the teacher Wendy Olsen, challenging the ideas underlying the assignment. School decision: Headmaster of the Ballard School, Keven Winkup, transferred Sousa-Ponce to a different class.
His mother and father, Dr. Amy Ponce de Sousa and Eric Sousa, filed a complaint against Olsen and Winkup with public schools in Seattle on January 31, citing harassment, intimidation, bullying, retaliation and discrimination.
It took the district eight months to reach a conclusion. In September, a 36-page investigation report revealed that Wincoop was “involved in retaliation” when he transferred Sousa-Ponce to a different class, in violation of board policy.
As for other allegations, the investigation did not find Olsen’s curriculum “blatantly racist.” After the parents of Ponce de Sousa and Sousa and Sousa appealed the decision, district investigators further found that Olsen and Wincoop created a “hostile school environment” and violated the district’s policy on harassment, intimidation and intimidation by “engaging in behavior that significantly interfered.” activities of Souza-Ponce. education.
Seattle school officials did not find that Sousa-Ponce was discriminated against because the appeal did not “allege that action was taken against your son because of his race.”
“So for your information, people of color in Seattle – if you are filing a discrimination claim, be sure to indicate that it has to do with your race,” said Ponce de Sousa.
This isn’t the first time students have questioned whether Ballard High, where nearly 74% of students in the 2020/21 school year were white, is doing enough to combat racism.
This finding shows how the district authorities make “the process as opaque as possible and demonstrate that they will take whatever steps they can to avoid dealing with real issues,” Ponce de Sousa said. “So they say we didn’t specifically say that he was injured because of his race, even though that was the whole class issue.”
The documents show that district officials are still determining whether Olsen’s curriculum “and the way it is taught” was racist and violated board policy.
Interim Superintendent Brent Jones and other county officials declined to be interviewed. In a statement emailed, district officials said Seattle schools “believe and are committed to fighting racism to ensure that race is not a predictor of student achievement.”
Olsen completed the class assignment in November 2020 when lessons were taught remotely. Essay question: “How do oppression, ignorance and trauma affect a person’s personality?”
According to Sousa-Poncet, the assignment was not racist at first glance; problematic were the answers to the questions for the essay and discussion in the class.
During a class discussion, Sousa-Ponce said that Olsen compared the black and brown communities that have historically been oppressed by racist systems to the Frankenstein monster, who in the novel kills people, including a child. Making this comparison is racist and portrays marginalized groups as “subhuman,” he said.
Ponce de Sousa, her son, and her husband emailed her, hoping that Olsen could understand why the essay question and class discussion were “inherently racist.”
“All we wanted was for Miss Olsen or Mr. Wincoop or someone with anti-racism training to come up to the class and tell them why this (essay and class discussion question) was so harmful and how it could be. avoided and treated differently, ”said Ponce de Sousa.
Responding to emails from Sousa-Ponce and his parents, Olsen wrote that she was “heartbroken,” and her curriculum led to that result. She said she was glad they brought this to her attention and that she was looking for “mentoring from teachers to try to be more effective in the future.”
In response to the reporter’s questions by e-mail, Olsen said that she “will never intentionally teach anything harmful” and does not plan to teach this lesson again.
“I evaluated my curriculum and made changes so that I would not be misunderstood, as I believe it happened in this case,” said Olsen. “I tried to discuss a student’s concerns with my class the same day I received an email from Eric Anthony and his mother. I also discussed this issue with my colleagues and the administrator and did my best to fully understand it and respond accordingly. ”
Eight Olsen students, including Souza-Ponce, were interviewed as part of the Seattle Schools investigation. Some students recalled how Olsen made a “vague” apology without explaining what the problem was.
Most of the students surveyed did not consider Olsen or her curriculum to be racist, but she made some offensive and inappropriate comments. For example, Olsen said that she liked Malcolm X because he was “eloquent.”
“I think it would be offensive because it says, ‘Wow, you are really eloquent,’ meaning that you can see that these people, or people like him, cannot speak,” the student said. interviewed during the investigation.
While investigators did not conclude that Olsen’s assignment was racist in its initial findings (Ponce de Sousa and her husband have appealed the decision and are awaiting a response), they found that Olsen said about racial abuse of blacks when she read an excerpt from the book. book out loud to class.
During the apology, Olsen explained how she had “tunnel vision” when she brought her Frankenstein ideas to class and she “asked questions that led people to fallacious and hurtful conclusions,” the report said.
Two Seattle County employees, Kathleen Vasquez, a literacy program manager, and Lisa Rice, one of Franklin High School’s English teachers, reviewed the incident. They found that the students’ responses did not mention the black and brown communities, but they admitted that they could not determine what was said during the class discussion.
After the incident, Olsen took a two-month break from teaching; this year she teaches again.
County officials said they are still identifying “corrective actions.”
“We offer our sincere apologies to the students and families involved in this case for the situation they are facing,” the statement said. “As a district, we will continue to work hard to ensure that our students receive a quality education that supports their growth and respects their experiences.”
Wincoop believes he made the right choice by transferring Sousa-Ponce to a different class, according to a statement that Wincope’s union representative sent on his behalf. He also “strives for continuous improvement in matters of race and justice, as well as improvement as an anti-racist educator.”
“The facts show that the student made great strides in the same course after the director of Wincoop transferred the student to a new teacher’s class,” the statement said. “The Wincoop Director is constantly thinking about how to improve his response to such situations in the future, for example, to attract more resources to make additional contributions.”
‘Deep fundamental flaws’
Souza-Ponce said the incident had a lasting impact on him. He said that after school he felt “defeated” and “every time I talk about it, my pulse quickens, and it overwhelms me.” He graduated from Ballard High School in the spring and is now a freshman at Western Washington University.
About a year ago, Addie Svek, who graduated from Ballard High in the spring, launched a petition on change.org urging employees to be held accountable for allegations of sexual harassment, racism, homophobia, and transphobia. It has over 1400 signatures.
Ballard Grad Dhani Srinivasan, now attending college in California, said she saw disturbing racist behavior at school.
“My story is like many of the stories in Ballard (from students of color), and my story shouldn’t be the most heard,” Srinivasan said. “In Ballard, it was not me who suffered the most. Many black students who don’t get the platform I work on today are unable to share their stories because of retaliation and power. “
Souza-Ponce said the incident highlighted “profound fundamental flaws in that our education system fails to protect students of color and other marginalized identities.”
Ponce de Sousa said she was “tentatively encouraged” by the outcome, but said the grievance process was time consuming and cumbersome. She believes that the system is designed to make it difficult to make complaints, creating an equality issue for parents who lack the resources or who must overcome language barriers.
“I am a non-black cis man with no language barrier and no accent and I work for the NAACP and it took all the privileges I really have to get to where I am right now where I am. some reaction. started happening, ”said Sousa-Ponce. “Colored students are overwhelmingly unheard, our voices are constantly drowned out, and we are constantly punished for speaking for ourselves in the face of horrific racism.”
Ponce de Sousa said she spoke to county officials about the fact that there is someone other than Vincup at Ballard High who will be looking at racial justice complaints. The person should be trained in restorative justice and ethics, she said.
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