When Ballard High School senior Eric Anthony Souza-Ponce first heard his English teacher describe a class essay assignment — to write about how the Frankenstein monster in the novel by Mary Shelley represented oppressed people — he was taken aback.
To Souza-Ponce, who is Latino, the essay was asking students to write about “why oppressed people do bad things,” he said. “It perpetuates that people of color do bad things.”
He, and then his parents, reached out repeatedly to teacher Wendy Olsen starting in December, challenging the thinking behind the assignment. The school’s solution: Ballard High Principal Keven Wynkoop transferred Souza-Ponce to another class.
His mother and father, Dr. Emi Ponce de Souza and Eric Souza, filed a complaint on Jan. 31 with Seattle Public Schools against Olsen and Wynkoop, citing harassment, intimidation, bullying, retaliation and discrimination.
It took the district eight months to reach a conclusion. In September, a 36-page investigation report found Wynkoop “engaged in a retaliatory action” when he transferred Souza-Ponce to another class, which is a violation of board policies.
As for the other charges, the investigation did not find Olsen’s curriculum was “overtly racist.” After parents Ponce de Souza and Souza appealed that decision, district investigators further found that Olsen and Wynkoop created a “hostile school environment” and violated the district’s policy on harassment, intimidation and bullying “by engaging in conduct that substantially interfered” with Souza-Ponce’s education.
Seattle Schools officials did not find Souza-Ponce was discriminated against because the appeal didn’t “allege facts that the actions were taken against your son because of his race.”
“So FYI, people of color in Seattle — if you file for discrimination, make sure to include that it is because of your race,” Ponce de Souza said.
It’s not the first time students have questioned whether Ballard High, where nearly 74% of the enrollment in the 2020-21 school year was white, is doing enough to combat racism.
This conclusion shows how district officials make “the process as opaque as possible and show they will take any out to not have to address the very real issues,” Ponce de Souza said. “So they say we didn’t specifically say he was hurt because of his race even though that was the entire issue with the class.”
District officials are still determining whether Olsen’s curriculum “and manner of instruction” was racist and violated board policies, documents show.
Interim Superintendent Brent Jones and other district officials declined to be interviewed. In an emailed statement, district officials said Seattle Schools “believes in and is committed to anti-racism, to ensure race is not a predictor of student success.”
Olsen made the class assignment in November 2020, when classes were being taught remotely. The essay question: “How does oppression, neglected potential, and trauma affect a person’s identity?”
The assignment wasn’t racist on its face, Souza-Ponce said; it was the responses to the essay question and class discussions that were problematic.
During class discussion, Souza-Ponce said, Olsen compared Black and brown communities — who have been historically oppressed by racist systems — to Frankenstein’s monster, who in the novel murders people, including a child. Drawing that comparison is racist and depicts marginalized groups as “subhuman,” he said.
Ponce de Souza, her son and her husband reached out via email, hoping Olsen could understand why the essay question and class discussions were “inherently racist.”
“All we wanted was for either Ms. Olsen or Mr. Wynkoop, or someone with anti-racist training to come to talk to the class and tell them why it (essay question and class discussions) was so harmful and how it could have been avoided and handled differently,” Ponce de Souza said.
Responding to Souza-Ponce and his parents’ emails, Olsen wrote that she was “heartbroken” her curriculum led to this outcome. She said she was glad they brought this to her attention and she was seeking out “mentorship from teachers to try to be more effective in the future.”
In an email response to a reporter’s questions, Olsen said she “would never intentionally teach something harmful” and she does not plan to teach the lesson again.
“I have evaluated my curriculum and have made modifications to avoid being misunderstood, as I believe happened in this case,” Olsen said. “I did try to address the student’s concerns with my class the same day I received an email from Eric Anthony and his mother. I also discussed this concern with my colleagues and my administrator and made every effort to understand it fully and respond appropriately.”
Eight of Olsen’s students, including Souza-Ponce, were interviewed as part of Seattle Schools’ investigation. Some students recalled Olsen making a “vague” apology, without explaining what the problem was.
Most of the students interviewed did not think Olsen or her curriculum was racist but that she had made several insulting and inappropriate comments. For example, Olsen said she liked Malcolm X because he was “articulate.”
“I think that would be insulting because it’s saying that, ‘Oh, wow, you’re really articulate,’ meaning that it could be seen that those people or people like him are not articulate,” a student interviewed for the investigation said.
Although investigators did not conclude that Olsen’s assignment was racist in its initial findings (Ponce de Souza and her husband appealed that decision and are waiting for a response), it did find Olsen said a racial slur for Black people while she was reading a portion of a book out loud to the class.
During her apology, Olsen explained how she had “tunnel vision” when she brought her ideas of “Frankenstein” to the class and she “asked questions that led people to the conclusions that were wrong and were hurtful,” the report said.
Two Seattle district employees — Kathleen Vasquez, a literacy program manager, and Lisa Rice, the co-English chair at Franklin High School — reviewed the incident. They found student responses made no references to Black and brown communities, but acknowledged they couldn’t determine what was said during class discussions.
Olsen took a two-month break from teaching after the incident; she is teaching again this year.
District officials said they are still determining “corrective action.”
“We extend our sincere apologies to the student and family involved in this matter for the situation they encountered,” 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 honors their backgrounds.”
Wynkoop believed he made the right choice transferring Souza-Ponce to another class, according to a statement that Wynkoop’s union representative sent on his behalf. He is also “dedicated to always improving around race and equity and improving as an anti-racist educator.”
“The facts show that the student experienced great success in the exact same course after Principal Wynkoop moved the student to a new teacher’s classroom,” the statement said. “Principal Wynkoop is continuously reflecting on how to improve his response to situations like these in the future, such as to bring in more resources to provide additional input.”
‘Deep fundamental flaws’
Souza-Ponce said the incident has had a lasting effect on him. He said he felt “defeated” after class and “every time I talk about it my heart rate ticks up and I can get overwhelmed about it.” He graduated from Ballard High School in the spring, and is now a freshman at Western Washington University.
About a year ago, Addie Svec, who graduated from Ballard High in the spring, created a change.org petition calling on staff to be held accountable for accusations of sexual harassment, racism, homophobia, and transphobia. It has more than 1,400 signatures.
Ballard grad Dhani Srinivasan, who is now attending college in California, said she saw disturbing displays of racist behavior at the school.
“My story is like many stories in Ballard (from students of color) and mine is not the story that needs to be the most heard,” Srinivasan said. “I wasn’t the one most being harmed at Ballard. A lot of Black students that aren’t receiving the platform I am today aren’t able to share their stories because of retaliation and power.”
Souza-Ponce said the incident has shown the “deep fundamental flaws in how our education system fails to protect students of color and other marginalized identities.”
Ponce de Souza said she is “tentatively encouraged” by the outcome but said the complaint process was time-consuming and cumbersome. She believes the system is designed to make it difficult to file complaints, creating an equity issue for parents who don’t have the resources or must overcome language barriers.
“I am a non-Black cisgender man with no language barrier and no accent, and I work for the NAACP, and it took every ounce of privilege that I do have to get to the point that I am at right now where some response is beginning to take place,” Souza-Ponce said. “Students of color are overwhelmingly not being heard, our voices are consistently being silenced, and we are constantly punished for speaking up for ourselves in the face of horrific racism.”
Ponce de Souza said she’s been in communication with district officials about having somebody other than Wynkoop at Ballard High to handle complaints about racial justice. That person should be trained in restorative justice and ethics studies, she said.
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