Why Is Seattle School Board Director Chandra Hampson Suing Her Own District?

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Photo: Seattle School Board

In an eerie parallel to some of the eyebrow-raising actions that led to the overwhelming February recall of three sitting school board members in San Francisco, a sitting Seattle School Board Director, Chandra Hampson, unsuccessfully sued her own district in March. Hampson’s highly unusual lawsuit demanded that the Seattle Public Schools retract a vote by her board colleagues. That vote implicitly endorsed a finding by an outside investigator that Hampson, along with former school board president Zachary DeWolf, had violated the Seattle Public Schools’ harassment policy by berating and bullying two Black staffers. The legal tempest continues.

The board vote, which pointedly required Hampson and DeWolf to refresh their understanding of the district’s anti-harassment policy and to adhere to it going forward, was a relatively mild if clear reprimand. The vote was in response to an investigative report commissioned by the district that concluded that Hampson and DeWolf had harassed, intimidated, and bullied two senior staffers in school year 2019-2020. The two staffers are Black, and both the board directors are Native American. 

Hampson’s lawsuit seeking to discredit those findings, filed in King County Superior Court, was curtly dismissed by a judge last week, but Hampson has already filed an appeal.

In San Francisco, parental and public frustration with their school board reached a boiling point over the board’s decision, while schools were shut down during due to the COVID pandemic, to spend months of effort in 2021 on developing a controversial – and mistake-riddled – plan to rename 44 public schools due to the perceived historical sins of their namesakes (including Abraham Lincoln), instead of focusing on how to get kids back into in-person learning. Public anger grew further when one of the San Francisco school board members, Alison Collins, sued her own school district for $87 million after she was removed as board vice-president when old tweets surfaced, in which Collins made racially inflammatory and disparaging comments about Asians. 

Collins’ lawsuit against her district – which was also quickly dismissed by a judge – became a major news story (and recall campaign issue) in San Francisco. The report on Hampson and DeWolf was the subject of a Seattle Times story. However, Hampson’s subsequent lawsuit (which did not seek monetary damages) against Seattle Public Schools has received no media attention at all (though I have been covering this situation on my Seattle Schools Community Forum blog and was mentioned in a 2020 Post Alley story on Hampson). 

Here’s the background. In late September 2020, the two district staffers, Dr. Keisha Scarlett and Manal Al-ansi, sent the Board a letter, under the title “Bullying, Intimidation, and Anti-Black Racism,” complaining about alleged aggressive and unprofessional behavior by Directors Hampson and DeWolf directed towards them. From the interview with Al-ansi in the investigation report:

“Beginning this summer (summer of 2020) until present day, their work has been met from the executive committee with expressed levels of disappointment, increased criticisms, questioning of their credentials and process they chose to use to advance Policy 0040, and interference from the members of the Board on the work they advanced.” 

In the letter, the staffers alleged that the directors had performed racially motivated acts of harassment, intimidation, and bullying (HIB) against them. Upon learning about the letter of complaint, Hampson and DeWolf demanded a formal investigation from then-Superintendent Denise Juneau. The district brought in external investigators, who began work in November 2020. The resulting 40-page report (along with 280 pages of supporting documents), which cost the district at least $87,500 as well as many hours of staff time (including that of Superintendent Juneau) devoted to interviews with the investigator, was finished on August 9, 2021.

There had been an attempt at a mediation with a former Superior Court judge, but that failed. These mediation services cost the district an additional $33,000. 

The investigation report noted, “The standard of review for investigations is preponderance of the evidence.” The investigation found that both directors had used “their positional authority” to bully/harass the two staffers over their work on the development of a new anti-racism Board policy, know internally as “Policy 0040.” The report, however, did not find evidence of racial motivation for the two board members’ actions. 

One interesting aside is that in several interviews in the investigation report, interviewees confessed confusion over whether Hampson and DeWolf could have even acted in a discriminatory manner against Scarlett and Al-ansi. One person said it in plain-spoken terms, asking if people of color could be racist against other people of color. 

At a Board meeting in September 2021, the Board voted to provide Hampson and DeWolf a copy of the district’s harassment policy (HIB Policy 5207 and Superintendent Procedure 5207 SP) and instruct them that they are “required to comply with that policy.” The Board voted for this 4-0-3 with Hampson, DeWolf, and Director Leslie Harris abstaining. 

While the Board did not formally say it was accepting the findings of the investigation, the decision to invoke the harassment policy seemed to implicitly accept that the report’s findings were correct, and Hampson certainly took it as an act of censure. In what appeared to be an attempt to minimize public attention to the report and the incidents it detailed, the Board also voted to waive its policy that states that items to be voted on at Board meetings must be attached to the agenda, so the report was never formally put into public record or posted on the district’s website.

The investigators had found several applicable policies around this work. One was Board policy 5207: Prohibition of Harassment, Intimidation and Bullying that was approved in November 2017. In their legal filing, Director Hampson’s legal team pushed back against the invocation of this policy in the investigation and in the subsequent board vote. 

Their legal claims were two-fold. One, they argued that Hampson’s actions do not rise to the level as stated in the policy especially to “have the effect of substantially interfering with an employee’s or volunteer’s work environment.” Two, they asserted that neither the Board policy 5207 nor its accompanying superintendent procedure 5207SP was meant to apply to Board members. Both of these arguments were rejected by the court, which on April 28 found that “1) Neither the decision of the District set forth in the outcome letter dated August 19, 2021 nor the action of the Seattle School Board at the September 9, 2021 meeting with respect to Director Hampson constitute arbitrary and capricious action subject to reversal by this Court; and 2) This appeal is dismissed.”

Director Hampson did not reply to a request for comment for this story. She has been a busy director in her three years on the Board and it would seem that she may be considering another run when her term is up next year. Obviously, the findings of the report, if they stand, are not likely to sit well with voters. Her lawsuit to overturn the finding that she had engaged in bullying and harassment of staff could be her attempt to protect her election chances. 

The costs to the district in defending against the lawsuit – and the future costs of Hampson’s presumed appeal – are not currently known.

Dr. Scarlett and Ms. Al-ansi have never spoken publicly about this issue or the report but Scarlett did say to the investigator that she thought the investigation was an “act of retaliation” and that it could “hurt their careers.” The investigation says that both women thought “naming the behavior” of Hampson and DeWolf would “challenge the Board to change it and transition to healing and restoration.”

The work on Policy 0040 – the Anti-racism policy – appears to have been given over to a consultant for the Board, Erin Jones, but it seems to have stalled out. 

Prior to her election in 2019, Chandra Hampson had previously been the president of the Seattle Council PTSA. She was greatly interested in bringing racial equity to students of color in Seattle Public Schools via an “antiracism policy.” Hampson reached out to then-Board director Jill Geary to help develop a Board policy on the issue. 

When Hampson was elected to the Board, she made it her mission to develop and pass what became known as “Policy 0040,” the “anti-racism” policy. Hampson is a passionate, no-holds-barred type of director and she threw herself into this work. 

In Seattle, school board directors create and vote on policy, which is then taken by the superintendent who develops a methodology to enact/enforce the new policy. However, Seattle school board directors have no dedicated staff to help them in researching best practices, legal issues or other policy development concerns, so they routinely rely on district staff to aid them in the development of new policy. 

The only employee that the Board supervises is the superintendent (whom they also find and hire). Board members are not supposed to be directing the work of any staff, whether at district headquarters or in schools. Indeed, over the last decade-plus Board members have regularly been called out for “micromanaging” staff and not allowing various superintendents free rein to oversee staff. 

Hampson needed help with Policy 0040, so then-Superintendent Denise Juneau assigned two senior staffers to the work, Chief Academic Officer Dr. Keisha Scarlett and Department of Race Equity Advancement head Manal Al-ansi. Both women have years of experience in understanding race and equity issues as well as long engagement with school communities on the topic.

In the middle of this work the COVID pandemic began. The district had to scramble in all directions to respond. leading to an all-hands-on-deck situation for district staff. Hampson, however, grew increasingly irritated that Scarlett and Al-ansi had slowed their work on the anti-racism policy. The investigation found that the two staffers tried to assure Hampson they would get back on track when circumstances permitted, but that COVID issues were currently occupying a great deal of their time. 

DeWolf was not greatly involved in this work. Indeed, he noted to the investigator that this was Hampson’s legacy work. He did, however, become incensed that in an email Al-ansi alluded to working with him when he believed that he had never even spoken with her on the matter. While he was largely on the sidelines of this issue, he seemed as upset as Hampson.

The mounting tensions between the two board members and the two staffers came to a head over two events. 

One was a 68-minute phone call between all four of them (plus a third staffer taking notes) that occurred when DeWolf was at Sea-Tac airport. He had to catch a plane and, at one point, had handed off the call to Hampson. Both directors apparently were blunt and harsh to the staffers to the point where there was yelling by Hampson. The staffer on the call taking notes called it “the worst professional meeting” she had ever been involved in. After the call ended, the staffer let the Superintendent and her senior aide, Sherri Kolx, know about it. The staffer also mentioned her concern to DeWolf, saying she really felt she needed to say something, and his reply was reported as, “You really didn’t.” 

It is unclear how much Superintendent Juneau knew of the ongoing situation. After that heated phone call, she had to know something was wrong, especially when she attended the second event – a Board meeting of the Executive Committee in late September 2020. Ten minutes were allotted to discuss Policy 0040. Typically staff members will give updates on their work on any given issue. However at that meeting, then-President DeWolf made the unusual step of allowing an outside group – Seattle Council PTSA – to make a presentation before staff on the work on this particular policy. The president of the SCPTSA, Manuela Slye, stated to committee members that the work was important and communities had been waiting too long.

Juneau jumped in to say that she wanted to recognize the efforts of staffers, Scarlett and Al-ansi, and asked if they could speak about their work. Hampson demurred, saying that it was really not about individuals but about moving forward. Juneau said she had just wanted staff to have the opportunity to present. Hampson said she would be glad to hear next steps from staff. 

Dr. Scarlett started by saying that staff is committed to this policy, noting the difficulties around COVID issues and also cited “institutional hurdles” and the “distrust of Black leaders.” DeWolf, who was chairing the meeting, asked her to wrap up but she continued on, at one point referencing “anti-black” directors. Tensions escalated, with Scarlett questioning being cut off by DeWolf, and DeWolf saying they would not be discussing personal issues. 

Dr. Scarlett and Ms. Al-ansi delivered their formal letter of complaint a few days after the Executive Committee meeting. 

Post Alley writer Sandeep Kaushik provided some input and editing to this piece. — Ed.

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Melissa Westbrook is a veteran observer of Seattle Schools and blogs at Seattle Schools Community Forum https://saveseattleschools.blogspot.com/

18 COMMENTS

  1. So glad my kids are launched and that they had the benefit of private school education before the system went full-on woke. Here we have a hard to understand conflict on a matter that has little to do with the 3 R’s and what goes on or should go on in a classroom – so called Anti-Racism efforts. A form of ideology and naval gazing that is unlikely to lead a student to write better, read more, or do math correctly. The racialized or racist – depending upon preferred terms, of the Seattle Schools and other regional government entities is a refuge for such processes. Treat people equally, provide added resources to the truly disadvantaged, lose the victimhood narrative and educate!

  2. Seattle’s school board is deeply dysfunctional, as this story makes clear. Good candidates don’t want to join this zoo, in part because they cannot get reelected if they show some courage in standing up against the teachers’ union, which has veto power over the board. Trying to forge an anti-racism policy has thrown more gasoline on the embers. It is so unstable that most superintendents despair of change or get tossed out after three years.
    I would suggest that the only way to reform this mess is to seek approval from the Legislature to have several of the Seattle School Board members appointed by the Mayor or by a carefully constructed panel. These appointees would not have to face reelection and they would not have to survive electoral politics.

    • Fully agree. It is time to come up with a better governance model for school boards. This week in California, one of the members of Oakland Unified School District penned a scathing and revealing resignation letter. It’s a must-read for anyone wishing to understand the dysfunction at work in larger city public school boards:

      https://gonzalesforschools.nationbuilder.com/blog

      See “Reflections on our Prospects for Serving Students and Families Better”

      • Steve, that’s some letter and I can see thru lines to Seattle Schools. This:
        “School quality drives enrollment, so our refusal to really take on school quality in a focused, consistent and fearless way is impacting our enrollment and leading to budget cuts, school closures and other negative consequences.”

        is absolutely an issue for SPS. Next year, their enrollment will have dropped by over 3,000 students and be below 50,000 for the first time in a decade. And this started before the pandemic. At a recent Board work session, several directors seemed to blow that off. President Hersey said they needed to worry about the students they do have.

        SPS loses money for every student who leaves. You’d think losing that much money would be a big deal to SPS.

        SPS Enrollment head Ashley Davies said enrollment goes in cycles. If that’s true, then why did the district open 8 new schools? Ask for more capital levy money to build additions on existing schools?

  3. David, unsure what you mean by unions have “veto power” over the board. Do you mean in elections?

    I might support some (not all) appointed board members but not control of schools by the mayor.

  4. I remain amazed that during a critical period when the education of thousands of Seattle’s children (including mine) hung in the balance, the Seattle School Board engaged in this embarrassing, performative, dysfunction soap opera even as the district’s online learning program devolved into a total joke. I do have some reservoir of sympathy for the district on that front; the school closures precipitated by COVID presented an enormous challenge that, even if handled perfectly, was going to lead to significant erosion of educational quality. But my sympathy is pushed past the breaking point when I learn that for many of the district’s elected leaders, pedagogy was ran a distant second to other, highly ideological commitments and questionable programs (don’t even get me started on the district’s (thankfully brief) lionization of Tracy Castro-Gill and her highly dubious “ethnic studies math curriculum”). I’m not sure my kids learned much of anything for the better part of two years, and I know that’s true for thousands of Seattle children. And sadly, probably even more pervasively true for the children of lower income and minority families. They deserved so much better from the people running the show at SPS.

    Like in San Francisco, our school board leadership seemed more focused on trendy left progressive social justice concerns than on figuring out how best to teach our children remotely. In San Francisco, however, the controversial priorities of the school board received significant media and public attention, and tghat public awareness helped to spur the February recalls of three members of the board (if the other SF board members had been eligible to be recalled, they likely would have been recalled too). Here, however, the activist clown car actions of some of the school board members — like Chandra Hampson bullying staffers and then suing the district after her colleagues issued a mild, largely hushed up reprimand — have been downplayed or even ignored by the traditional media. Consequently, very few members of the public know about the series of soap operatic dysfunctions that have plagued the Seattle schools. What’s up with that, local media?

  5. @ Sandeep, traditional media is covering newsworthy stories. This is not it.
    @ MW, keep on inserting yourself and spread your stories even from afar as you desperately try to stay relevant.
    Your rumors about who is running for school board are ridiculous. Chandra has not expressed any plans to run for office to people close to her. What makes you think you know more than anyone? I think you have a crush on Director Hampson haha

    • It’s weird how any critique of a far left political figure who is a woman seems often to lead to those creepy “have a crush” comments. I suspect much of the time they come from the public figure herself, given the personality disorder issues that some seem to struggle with.

  6. I have a child who is a high school teacher in Seattle. During Covid the district provided for those lacking technology bandwidth and computers. But they allowed students to have their cameras off. The reasoning given was some distorted equity concept, as if somehow it was unfair to require cameras be on for all kids.

    I read an article in the WSJ where another district saw cameras off as a problem, required all be on unless there was an appeal. About 1% had successful appeals. The rest had cameras on. My teacher child said that more than a third were off camera, and of them, many were not in actual attendance, since when cold called they were not responsive.

    Which sorts of parents do you think attempted to oversee their kids’ participation and who do you think were most screwed by cameras off? Add to this that they were not allowed to fail kids who were clearly failing. The end result of coddling of this nature is that the kids fall behind, but those from disadvantaged backgrounds, lacking a support system to attempt to enforce attendance and compliance bear the brunt of this.

    So I suppose all is not lost – we will have a good pipeline to prison and the social service system by the cameras off crowd, to keep the educated folks fully employed. And the liberals among us have reason for ongoing indignation and emoting for the oppressed and disadvantaged, created in part by the equity monsters on staff, and some patronizing and infantalizing educators, who expect little and get little from their students.

    Privilege is perpetuated and the gaps between groups widen. Then we ban testing so we can pretend that some kids are not cutting it, and everyone gets a trophy. But by all means, take down a School Board member because she upset some POC. Perhaps she misbehaved, perhaps not. But racist? Any rational parent with means will do all within their means to run far away from this clown car.

    I will close by saying that I am amazed that people will run for School Board. It is a saintly act, and an unpaid endeavor guaranteed to make enemies against the most idealistic and well-behaved member who sticks to concepts like fiscal and educational accountability, and is unwilling to engage in distracting rhetoric and racial and ideological obsession. I bow before those willing to take it on.

  7. @JC, I expect traditional Seattle media is trying to ignore the failures of the school district as much as possible. It’s not a great selling point for businesses to set up shop/move workers into a city with district leadership dysfunction, and outcomes like 90% of African Americans not meeting state math standards.

  8. @ Luna,
    As a fellow Wallingfordian, I expected you to know better than believing in standardized testing.
    Oh well.

  9. Thanks for publishing Melissa Westbrook’s write-up.

    Westbrook has been involved with Seattle Public Schools for about 20 years. We are lucky to have a watchdog overseeing district operations. Westbrook reads district documents, attends committee meetings, watches board meetings etc. She is very familiar with the district’s operations, school boards and governance structures.

    Under Chandra Hampson, the culture of bullying is alive and well. Hampson and ZDW would silence and bully a former school board member from the dais. Hampson works in conjunction with a few SCPTSA board members that are bullies, as well. As the Investigative Report points out, senior staff was silenced and a SCPTSA board member provided a policy update to the Executive Committee. Since when is it okay to have the SCPTSA present to the board? For some mysterious reason, an entire SCPTSA board resigned and usual individuals now occupy those seats, again. Some of the SCPTSA board members moderate a large Facebook and silence those with dissenting opinions.

    Hampson’s Investigative Report and dismissed court case have cost taxpayers in excess of $100K. Hampson has filed an appeal which will continue to ring -up legal expenses and distract the district’s legal department from other issues.

    Sandeep’s sentiments ring true and the link Steve posted rings true, as well…especially around our education systems educating children. Take Hersey’s district- for example. A very quick Google Search will show that 95% of students at Emerson Elementary are not passing math and 90% of students are not passing math at Rainier Beach HIgh School while the board and district are spending time dismantling advanced learning opportunities which will never help these students.

    Thanks for your interest and I hope you work to hold the board accountable for educational outcomes. Kids don’t have a chance when 95% of elementary school students are unable to attain basic math standards.

    • Yeah, the academic proficiency test result numbers for kids in the Seattle Schools are absolutely horrifying. Next month, thousands of children across Seattle will graduate high school unable to demonstrate basic proficiency in english or math; because so many kids are so far behind, the SPS has no real choice other than to wave them all through and hand them diplomas under what it calls the “emergency graduation waiver” provision. Given the educational catastrophe these numbers represent, the sense of complacency and (often ridiculous) business as usual with the school board is maddening.

      Kids in Seattle have suffered through twin tragedies in the last two years. The first, the inevitable loss of learning that was born of the long school closures (which for the most part were necessary and justified given the threat of COVID), was inevitable. The second – the feckless, foolish, petty, ego-driven, lazy, ideologically extreme and blinded, unserious non-leadership of the school board – made the first tragedy so much worse, and could and should have been avoided.

  10. I hear you, Sandeep.

    Similar to yourself, the pandemic would have been difficult for any board and superintendent. However, throughout the pandemic, I have been watching school board meeting, reading district documents etc. I keep waiting for the board to discuss the manner in which Covid has impacted mental and academic well being and strategies to mitigate damage. It should be noted that these discussions are not taking place.

    I fear we will loose a generation of kids.

    Getting back to the anti-racist policy, best practices and the board….Hampson and ZDW wanted to push-out the Anti-racist policy before legal completed it’s analysis. ZDW wanted a press release for pushing the policy out of the Executive Committee, but before the full board voted on the policy. Press releases are made after the entire board has a chance to weigh-in on the policy.

    • Just to note to readers, the investigation did show that Director Zachary DeWolfe was pressuring the head of SPS Communications to put out a press release about the anti-racism policy before it was finished. As Old Timer points out, that is not the normal course of action for the Board and so it was troubling to see DeWolf pushing it.

  11. The initial closures in March 2020 were justified. But we ran literally thousands of natural experiments around the country and around the world (private schools, red state schools, parochial schools, schools in Sweden, UK and elsewhere.) And the data was VERY clear by fall of 2020 that schools could be, and should be, reopened. Yet Seattle Public Schools, together with SEA, ignored that data. They amplified fears and kept schools closed. The results are only now beginning to be tallied. COVID didn’t cause learning loss and all this harm — our own entirely optional policy response to it did.

    • Yeah, in the interest of caution I might argue that waiting till Jan. 2021 was perhaps justifiable. But regardless, this data on the educational setbacks suffered by the school closures were for is shockingly bad:

      “We found that districts that spent more weeks in remote instruction lost more ground than districts that returned to in-person instruction sooner. Anyone who has been teaching by Zoom would not be surprised by that. The striking and important finding was that remote instruction had much more negative impacts in high-poverty schools. High-poverty schools were more likely to go remote and their students lost more when they did so. Both mattered, but the latter effect mattered more. To give you a sense of the magnitude: In high-poverty schools that were remote for more than half of 2021, the loss was about half of a school year’s worth of typical achievement growth.”

      https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2022/05/remote-learning-likely-widened-racial-economic-achievement-gap/

  12. @Steve Murch and @Sandeep Kaushik, the failure to reopen schools once teachers had vaccinations has forever pushed me to the right ideologically, and I’ve been a flaming progressive for years. The School Board and especially the then-President of the Board became very effective at deflecting discussion about reopening buildings, and did not help the toxic atmosphere in which this was considered – that reopeners were Trump supporters, racists, anti-teacher etc . I remember her disdain for Inslee when he ordered schools to re-open. Thank goodness for basic minimal school standards in this state; how horrifying that was the only tool we had back to normalcy and that it wasn’t invoked sooner.

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