Questions of racial bias raised in WIAA football investigation

A crowd of distressed Bellevue High School football players and their families filled the Bellevue School Board meeting Dec. 15 to voice their concerns about the investigation into the Bellevue football program.

Bellevue High School student and football player Tyson Penn

A crowd of distressed Bellevue High School football players and their families filled the Bellevue School Board meeting Dec. 15 to voice their concerns about the investigation into the Bellevue football program.

Altogether, a half dozen student athletes and their families out of the team of 90 players have come forward with concerns about racial bias in the investigation. According to the complainants, both the current and a former investigator have allegedly focused on a small group of African-American team members and have questioned how those students could afford to live in Bellevue.

“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.

Concerns about the tactics of one investigator led to his removal from the case at the request of the district two months ago. School Board President Christine Chew told the audience at the Dec. 15 school board meeting that the concerns brought forward that night 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.

Bob Westinghouse, one of the independent investigators chosen by the WIAA to probe the program, told the Reporter that he was not aware of any allegations of racial bias in their investigation. Neither he nor his partner, Carl Blackstone, responded to additional questions.

“To date, no parent or player has complained to the (Washington Interscholastic Activities Association) that the investigation has been racially biased and the WIAA does not have evidence of racial bias in the investigation,” WIAA spokesperson Conor Laffey told the Reporter on Dec. 15.

The district asked the WIAA to conduct a fact-finding investigation into allegations against the Bellevue High School football program Aug. 25. The allegations included that athletes had received subsidized housing to gain eligibility, that coaches coordinated tuition payments for athletes and other charges.

A month later, Blackstone and Westinghouse, former federal prosecutors now with Seattle-based Yarmuth Wilsdon PLLC, were hired to conduct the investigation.


Questions concerning the tactics investigators used began shortly thereafter.

“I know what real racism looks like, and it is peeking ugly through the door at Bellevue High School. It makes me sad,” said Marisa Spooner-LeDuff, Tyson Penn’s legal guardian.

Allegations of racial bias first publicly emerged on Oct. 20 at a school board meeting, when two community members said that they had heard of investigators identifying themselves as federal or FBI investigators and showing up at peoples homes and questioning their neighbors.

Complaints surrounding one investigator led to him being removed from the case in October.

Said investigator, who interviewed Bellevue High School senior Chris King in October, specifically asked him how certain African-American team members — such as Justus Rogers, Isaac and Jacob Garcia, Isaiah Gilchrist, Tyson Penn and Tyren Sams — could afford to live in Bellevue, King said.

While the investigator did ask King if he ever saw coaches give anyone money or other handouts to anyone, King said he was not asked about his financial situation or how his single mother could afford to live in Bellevue.

“Justus has two parents, I have one. I’m white, he’s African-American, yet he still didn’t ask how come I was living in Bellevue,” he said.

While many players have transferred into the district, the investigator asked King specifically about six current and two former Bellevue football players, all of whom are African-American, he said.

“I know several players that didn’t go to Bellevue from the start, but he never asked about them, which kind of bothered me because the only difference I found was that they were white and not black,” King said.

But, volunteer coach for the football program, Mike Rogers, said that there are probably more white kids who have moved into the district than there are black kids.

Another white student athlete and his family interviewed by investigators last month said they were never questioned about their finances or how they were able to afford to live in Bellevue.

After showing up at her Seattle home and questioning her neighbors, Spooner-LeDuff was interviewed by investigators in October and questioned about her finances and how she and her husband could afford to live in Bellevue and Seattle.


 

In a letter sent to members of the football program dated Oct. 23, Executive Director of Schools John Harrison acknowledged that the district had received complaints about the method and scope of the investigation and that the investigator in question had been prohibited from further participation in the case.

Additionally, the district took steps to protect students’ rights by requiring all requests for interviews go through the district.

Nine families selected by the WIAA were approached by the district for interviews in November. All but one declined.

The WIAA declined to identify the families they requested interviews from due to the ongoing investigation.

Marianne Jones, an attorney who was present when a Bellevue High School counselor was questioned by WIAA investigators Nov. 25, said that a list of students provided by Westinghouse contained only black football players. The district confirmed that the WIAA requested interviews with the counselors, but were unaware of what transpired during the interviews.

“I couldn’t identify any white football players. All of (the names) that I could see on that list were black football players,” she said.

When interviewing Perry Satterlee, his wife and son, Jake, on Nov. 20, lead investigator Blackstone specifically asked about a handful of black students.

“He asked my son about some of the best athletes on the team. My son gave him some names of players that didn’t seem to fit who he was looking for, and who were not transfer students, and then he started to provide a list of names of ‘starters’ whom he perceived had transferred,” Satterlee said.

Those students were Penn, Gilchrist and the Garcia brothers.

The Satterlees — who are caucasian and the sole family who consented to a WIAA  interview in November — were never asked about their financial situation as Spooner-LeDuff was or King was asked to speculate on, according to Perry Satterlee.

The focus on African-American students came as a surprise to many members of the community, including Mike Rogers.

“I was surprised. Once I heard that almost all the kids being questioned were minority kids, you’ve got to think that something is wrong,” he said.

The WIAA and the district have a meeting set for Friday, Dec. 18 to review the progress of the investigation and discuss any issues or improvements.

 

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