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). They allege, in a complaint filed in King County Superior Court, that the organizations were negligent in their refusal to protect students from harassment, intimidation and bullying. Further, the plaintiffs allege that they perpetuated 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 what the plaintiffs’ lawyers term “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 alleged 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, in a press release. “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.
Marianne Jones, attorney for the families, claimed 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.
According to the attorneys, several Bellevue community members raised concerns to district officials early in the investigation about the tenor of the interviews. But the officials’ response, allegedly, was to tell students that they would be physically present during interviews to protect against inappropriate questioning and stop the interviews, if necessary.
The 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,” the attorneys claimed.
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, according to the attorneys.
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,” said Jones. “Though our own district and athletic institutions have refused to acknowledge these students’ suffering, the federal and state government have taken notice.
“We will not relent until the district takes responsibility for its duty to protect its students and families. 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.”