BELLEVUE, Wash., Nov. 3, 2017 /PRNewswire/ -- This week, one former and two current Bellevue High School (BHS) students filed a lawsuit against Bellevue School District (BSD) and the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA). According to a complaint filed in King County Superior Court, the plaintiffs claim the organizations were negligent in their refusal to protect students from harassment, intimidation and bullying, and that they allowed discrimination by investigators appointed to review alleged WIAA violations by BHS' football program, in violation of the students' state and civil rights.
The suit alleges that throughout the 2015-16 investigation— led by the WIAA at the district's request— BSD and WIAA leaders allowed students and their parents to be exposed to interrogation-style questioning from aggressive investigators.
Plaintiffs include Isaiah Ifanse and Antonio Hill, who currently attend BHS, and BHS graduate Eron Kross. According to the complaint, the students were subjected to ridicule, harassment, intimidation and bullying by the investigators while BSD and the WIAA ignored the families' repeated complaints about what parents said were abusive tactics. In addition, the suit alleges that the investigation – headed by two attorneys who introduced themselves as "former federal prosecutors" – was an attempt to intimidate the parents and their minor-aged students.
The complaint points to several examples of glaring misconduct by the investigators, which the plaintiffs say should have immediately caused BSD and the WIAA to question the investigators' methods. It details the experiences of three families, who agree that investigators used intimidation and bullying tactics during their interviews.
In one exchange outlined in the complaint, investigators threatened plaintiff Kross about his prospects of college admission in retaliation for comments he made at a 2015 public school board meeting in support of his friends and teammates.
"During my interrogation, I felt extremely intimidated when the investigators told me they'd seen my transcript and knew I was smart and should have known better than to make a public statement to the school board about the injustices I saw," said Kross, a senior at the time of the investigation. "These investigators even implied it would be a 'shame' if something were to happen that might affect my opportunities for college admission. It was so shocking—I had no idea I would be under attack when I walked into that room."
Among multiple instances of harassment, the suit also details examples of racial targeting, beginning with the list of students that WIAA investigators claimed were transfers and were targeted for interrogation. Out of 42 students, 35 were students of color – a ratio of 83.33 percent, markedly higher than the representative student population in BSD. Hill and Ifanse, who are students of color, were included on the list, but had been in the district since middle school – they were not transfers.
According to Marianne Jones, attorney for the families, investigators Bob Westinghouse and Carl Blackstone badgered multiple students of color, including Ifanse and Hill, about how their families could afford to live in Bellevue, pressing them with questions about how their parents paid for groceries and demanding to know who was responsible for paying their rent.
Investigators allegedly even challenged Hill, who was underage, several times about whether his address was legitimate.
Kross and other white athletes were not asked these same racially insensitive questions about their own backgrounds and situations.
"Our family moved to Bellevue so that my kids could have the best possible opportunities to succeed – in academics, sports, and the many other aspects of life that are promoted by a supportive community," said Jennifer Noel, Bellevue resident and Hill's mother. "To have my motives as a parent called into question was so deeply insulting on many levels. But what was worse, the district and school board members just sat by and let it happen."
Early in the investigation, several Bellevue community members raised concerns to district officials about the tenor of the interviews, but officials' response was to tell students that they would be physically present during interviews to protect against inappropriate questioning and stop the interviews, if necessary.
Plaintiffs agreed that BSD officials were present during their interrogations, but no one stepped in to help, the suit alleges. BHS Athletic Director Lauren McDaniel attended Ifanse's interview, but simply put her head down and remained quiet when questions turned to harassment or went outside the scope of the investigation, according to the complaint.
"It made me angry and it hurt me at the same time because Lauren was supposed to be doing her job, which was to step in when questions got too personal, but she didn't do any of that inside the meeting room," Ifanse said.
Prior to the suit, the families tried multiple avenues to engage in dialogue with BSD and avoid legal action. Several Bellevue families filed official harassment, intimidation and bullying (HIB) complaints with the district; appealed to BSD's director of equity; and brought their concerns in front of the school board. Despite their numerous attempts to be heard for several months, BSD did nothing to address the families' concerns.
"This is about making our voices heard and sending a clear message to the district, school board and WIAA: we will not tolerate this type of abusive behavior and sit by while the people put in positions to protect our children do absolutely nothing to defend our rights," Noel said. "No family in this district – or anywhere – should be bullied into feeling like they don't belong here. These leaders' refusal to advocate for students has left us no other option than to pursue this legal action to bring awareness to Bellevue School District's and the WIAA's disturbing pattern of neglect."
In addition to this lawsuit, the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is pursuing its own investigation into BSD and the WIAA based on concerns about the treatment of students and racial targeting by investigators. The OCR enforces federal civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination in programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance from the Department of Education.
Additionally, Washington State Senator Michael Baumgartner (R-Spokane) has introduced SB 5583, a bill that would characterize the WIAA as a state agency and ensure greater accountability to protect the students, families and schools it serves.
"Though our own district and athletic institutions have refused to acknowledge these students' suffering, the federal and state government have taken notice," Jones said.
"We will not relent until the district takes responsibility for its duty to protect its students and families," Jones continued. "District officials must acknowledge that despite receiving clear warnings, they allowed WIAA investigators to bring racism into the Bellevue School District. District officials need to recognize racism and must be held accountable for their inaction so that it doesn't happen again."
For more information, visit www.protectbellevuestudents.com
SOURCE Jones Law Office PLLC