A Bellevue Wolverines running back gets tackled during the season opener in 2015 against Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas) in a non-league contest. File photo

Bellevue High School students sue school district, WIAA over ‘racist’ football investigation

Bellevue High School students and a parent recently sued the Bellevue School District and Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) for alleged negligence and a violation of civil rights.

Filed on Nov. 1, Antonio Hill, Eron Kross, Isaiah Ifanse and his mother Jennifer Ifanse claim investigators with the WIAA repeatedly racially profiled African-American students on Bellevue High School’s football team in 2015 and beyond during an investigation into whether the team broke WIAA rules.

The school district, they claim, did nothing to stop it.

In 2015, Bellevue School Board members asked the WIAA to launch an investigation into the Bellevue High School football program. WIAA hired two investigators but instead of investigating under Appendix 11 of the WIAA’s handbook, which ensures rules of due process, the appendix was removed. According to the lawsuit, which was filed by Marianne K. Jones on behalf of the students, the district allowed the investigation because they thought Appendix 11 would be applied.

Yet, when it wasn’t, the school district “could have and should have terminated the investigation by the WIAA and done their own investigation. However, BSD did not take ownership for their miscommunication with the WIAA and simply let the investigation continue, without due process, without the WIAA procedures they had agreed to, and eventually without protection in place for the students and now plaintiffs,” according to the suit.

The Reporter reached out to the Bellevue School District and the WIAA for comment but received no reply.

This action, the lawsuit claims, allowed the investigators to “embark on a sweeping, reckless, racially biased, intimidating and harassing investigation” of the football students.

In fall 2015, students of color and their families complained to the board that investigators rummaged through their garbage and they were being targeted, but they felt the Bellevue School District did nothing to stop the investigation.

“The BSD Board of Directors held no vote or discussion about the issue and refused to consider the potential or actual harm to the plaintiffs despite repeatedly hearing from the community that this investigation was harming students and their families,” the lawsuit continues. “BSD ignored the community and its students.”

According to the lawsuit, the district eventually complained to the WIAA about the removal of Appendix 11 as well as the concerns raised by the community, but the WIAA investigators allegedly said the district wasn’t cooperating because the WIAA believed the district’s attorney, who is African-American, was a reason for their lack of cooperation. The attorney ended up resigning, the lawsuit states.

After she quit, the community again brought issues of racial bias, profiling and harassment to the school district. They even went to the Department of Equity director but felt no action had been taken.

Instead, they told the football team members to participate and cooperate with the investigation or “negative inferences would be drawn and the BHS football program would suffer.”

The WIAA investigators began to look into a list of students they deemed to be transfer students, however, the lawsuit states a “vast majority” of the students were not transfer students at all. What they were was 83.3 percent students of color. The investigators allegedly created the list of students “based on racial profiling.”

Two students on that list were plaintiffs Isaiah Ifanse and Antonio Hill. Both African-American students had attended Bellevue High School and lived in the district prior to starting high school and both stayed in the area all four years.

“The investigators … began probing into the plaintiffs’ personal lives and examining the plaintiffs who are of color on topics related to their parents’ finances – including the inquiries as to how their parents were able to afford food, necessities and rent in a neighborhood like Bellevue,” the lawsuit states. “The white plaintiff (Kross) was not asked those questions.”

During these interviews, the plaintiffs allege Bellevue High School’s athletic director was supposed to intervene but didn’t effectively do her job, as when she did she “allowed herself to quickly get shut out by the investigators.”

Again, no action from the district, the lawsuit alleges.

Hill’s mother eventually filed a harassment, intimidation and bullying complaint against the investigators with the district but claimed nothing was done.

Kross, who was a (white) transfer student, said he was never asked about his living situation or if his parents could afford to live in Bellevue. But he was asked if he knew information about his African-American teammates. Kross spoke up about the treatment to news outlets and at a December 2015 school board meeting.

“In his interview, the investigators became angry when Kross refused to take back his observations of the questions that the male athletes of color were being asked as compared to the questions plaintiff Kross, as white male athlete, was being asked,” the lawsuit continues.

In April 2016, the Bellevue School District launched an investigation into the half-dozen complaints of harassment, intimidation and bullying during the WIAA investigation, specifically as it related to racial bias and profiling. However, in an interview with former Superintendent Tim Mills, he said he feared that wasn’t enough to help students.

The plaintiffs are seeking damages to be determined at trial for the district’s alleged negligence and the WIAA’s violation of their civil rights under Washington state’s law against discrimination.

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