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.