Lake Washington School District (LWSD) has faced criticism for reprimanding a Blackwell Elementary School teacher after she wore a traditional Chinese dress to class during Chinese New Year in February.
A formal investigation of the incident was launched after WA Asians For Equality, an advocacy group, filed a discrimination complaint under the guidelines of the Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI).
The incident began when Carol Nicholson, a first grade teacher, wore a traditional Chinese dress that was gifted to her by a former student’s family to celebrate Chinese New Year on Feb. 1. That day, her students participated in activities related to Chinese culture such as making paper lanterns.
Soon after, the school district labeled Nicholson’s outfit as “cultural appropriation,” citing an anonymous complaint as their reason. Nicholson is white.
The teacher was told to issue an apology letter stating that she “made a mistake in wearing another culture’s clothing which is not part of my daily lived experience.”
However, several Chinese American parents of Blackwell students then became upset after receiving the apology letter. Many of them perceived Nicholson’s gesture as an act of cultural appreciation, and felt that the district was discriminatory in forcing the teacher to apologize. They reached out to LWSD, requesting the district reconsider its stance.
After the district failed to respond, the parents notified WA Asians For Equality for help. The group filed an investigation request to Pablo Ortega, LWSD’s Director of Equity and Family Engagement. They also contacted the principal of Blackwell Elementary, Jim Eaton.
According to Linda Yang, director of WA Asian for Equality, the district was not very responsive.
“Director Ortega had a Zoom meeting with us on Feb. 25, and that was the only time we were able to collect some information from the district,” Yang said. “During that meeting, we pointed out that Mrs. Nicholson’s act was welcomed by Chinese culture, and should not be labeled as ‘cultural appropriation’.”
Blackwell’s principal did not respond to the group’s inquiry.
The district also refused to grant the Blackwell parents a group meeting, but agreed to hold individual parent meetings. It was during one of those meetings that Ortega informed a parent that they would not retract previous decisions on this incident. The parents and WA Asians for Equality were not able to learn much else.
Over the next several weeks, WA Asians For Equality continued to try to gather more details on the incident from the district. They also threatened to file a discrimination complaint to the state if the two groups could not resolve the issue. Meanwhile, the parents filed several public records requests. According to Yang, they were not successful.
A total of 62 parents signed a public letter explaining why Nicholson’s wearing of a Chinese dress was a sign of respect that was welcomed by their community. They reiterated their investigation request.
On March 31, WA Asians For Equality filed a state discrimination complaint against LWSD, claiming the district violated the Washington Civil Rights Act. The complaint gave the district 30 days to conduct a formal investigation and respond to the allegations.
“We sure hope the district will do the right thing,” Yang said.
On May 3, LWSD’s investigation found no “unfair or prejudicial treatment based on race, color, national origin, and ethnicity” over this incident.
The Sammamish Independent contacted LWSD for their side of the story, but the district declined to comment.