Bellevue School District launches investigation into WIAA football investigation complaints

The Bellevue School District has launched an internal investigation into a half dozen complaints of harassment, intimidation and/or bullying during the investigation into the Bellevue High School football team.

The Bellevue School District has launched an internal investigation into a half dozen complaints of harassment, intimidation and/or bullying during the investigation into the Bellevue High School football team.

The formal complaints, which were all submitted anonymously, outline acts of alleged intimidation and harassment by the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) investigators in February and March, according to public records the Reporter obtained from the school district.

One complainant reported that his children’s grades have suffered, he or she has lost sleep and been emotionally distraught over the investigation and has contemplated not returning to Bellevue High School. Another recounted an incident in which he believes the WIAA investigators were trying to get his son to recant a statement he made to the school board that the investigation was racially biased.

“They continued belligerently, wanting [redacted] to revisit his statements from that meeting … The investigators began to aggressively lecture [redacted] for several minutes on racism … I felt like they were threatening him and realized they were asking [redacted] to retract his statement on racism,” according to the complaint.

The Bellevue Coaches Association also wrote two letters to Executive Director of Schools John Harrison last month concerning the investigators’ behavior.

Both complainants said that the investigators were continuing to focus on black football players and were knowingly rebuking the defined questioning scope the district set in October 2015. Association President Pat Jones said that the investigators stated they did not have to follow the district’s guidelines, nor would they.

The other complainant said that the investigators reacted sarcastically when he pointed out that they were only asking about black families.

“The interrogators became noticeably upset, raised their voices rather loudly in an intimidating fashion and proceeded to ask him immediately about two Caucasian families in a very loud, sarcastic, rude and condescending tone,” Jones wrote in a letter on behalf of assistant coach Rick Brown.

Neither the investigators nor the WIAA received any formal complaints, according to representatives from both groups. Investigator Bob Westinghouse added that there is no merit to any of the claims of which he has been made aware.

“We have addressed all of these issues in our our final report that has been submitted to the WIAA,” Westinghouse said.

The WIAA hired former federal prosecutors Westinghouse and Carl Blackstone in September 2015 to conduct a fact-finding investigation into allegations that Bellevue High School football players used false addresses to gain eligibility, were directed to attend the Academic Institute and received various financial and academic benefits.

Shortly thereafter, community members began expressing concerns about the investigation and the alleged focus on black football players.

A member of Blackstone and Westinghouse’s investigative team was removed in October 2015 after parents’ complaints that he was showing up unannounced at their homes and was questioning minors without their parents’ permission. Despite additional steps taken by the district to protect students’ rights — including limiting the scope of the investigation — the clamor continued.

Six student athletes and their families previously told the Reporter that they felt the investigators had a distinct bias towards black football players and their families.

A group of both black and white Bellevue football players spoke in front of the School Board in December about their feelings at seeing their black teammates singled out and asked how they could afford to live in Bellevue.

Six student-athletes and their families told the Reporter last fall that they felt the investigators had a distinct bias towards black football players and their families.

“Why didn’t these investigators ask any white players, like me, how they could afford to live here? Please stop the investigation of five people based on skin color and a perception of who should live in Bellevue,” Bellevue High School senior Eron Kross asked the board.

At the time, newly-selected Bellevue School Board President Christine Chew told the concerned students that the district supported them and that these issues would be addressed.

“We do support you, we do care about you and we are concerned about some of the things you’re concerned about. We have already made reports to the WIAA about some of the issues you brought up, and things got changed,” she said.

The district has been following up with the WIAA regarding citizens’ concerns with the investigation, Chew told the Reporter on April 11.

A disproportionate number of players of color were interviewed, according to WIAA spokesperson Conor Laffey, but that was because as at least 35 of the 42 players who had transferred to Bellevue High School from outside the district since 2008 are black.

Despite concerns members of the Bellevue football community expressed over the last six months, the district helped facilitate interviews between parents and guardians and the investigators.

The district sent letters to 14 families in January, encouraging them to speak to investigators. In both letters, Harrison wrote that “a failure to cooperate may contribute to an adverse inference in the investigative report, which may be detrimental to the interests of Bellevue High School and its football program.”

One complainant said the district’s letter implied there would be devastating consequences should they turn down the voluntary WIAA interviews and that he felt his son was coerced to participate.

Since the investigation is being conducted by a third-party group, any complaints made to the district or WIAA wouldn’t have any impact on the fact-finding investigation, according to Laffey. It is unclear at this time what impact the district’s internal investigation will have.

The WIAA said that they have reviewed some of the complaints and agreed with Blackstone that there was no merit to the claims.

“These fact finders have been involved in many sensitive situations throughout their careers and are experienced interviewers. I have no doubt that they handled the interviews and investigation process professionally and respectfully,” WIAA Executive Director Mike Colbrese said in a statement.”We understand that some families feel they weren’t treated fairly. We take formal complaints seriously and will be cooperating with the Bellevue School District during the investigating process.”

The WIAA added that each student interview was attended by the Bellevue High School athletic director or the Bellevue High School principal, and to their knowledge, neither representative has voiced concern about the conduct of the interviews.

Blackstone and Westinghouse’s investigation concluded recently, and the findings were reported to the WIAA and school district. Some details about the report were released on April 14, but requests for copies of the fact-finding report were not completed at press time.

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