At least 17 players attended the private school over the past seven years, some at the urging of coaching staff and with others picking up the pricey tab.
Bellevue High School has established itself as one of the premier prep-football programs in the nation — with 11 state titles in the past 15 years and an upcoming season opener planned to be televised on ESPN.
But the program’s remarkable success has depended, in part, on players who weren’t actually Bellevue High students. Instead, athletes became eligible to play for the football powerhouse by traveling to a Bellevue office park for classes at an obscure, 40-student private school: The Academic Institute, Inc.
While the Institute touts its focus on education — at a full-time cost of $1,750 per month — two former teachers label Academic Institute a “diploma mill” that doesn’t adhere to basic educational standards. At least 17 Bellevue football players attended the program over the past seven years, The Seattle Times has learned.
Among the players who have attended Academic Institute were those instrumental in Bellevue’s recent 67-game winning streak: Myles Jack, a linebacker now at UCLA; Marcus Griffin, a defensive tackle at the University of Arizona; and Max Richmond, a wide receiver at the University of Washington.
Bellevue football investigation:
At least two families of football players received tuition assistance coordinated by the team’s wealthy supporters, according to interviews and documents. A third player whose family couldn’t afford the steep tuition said he attended Academic Institute for two years without knowing who picked up the tab.
Students at a private school without a football team can play for a public-school team in their home district.
The events took place under the watch of school-district officials who conceded that discounted tuition for athletes would constitute a violation of state athletic rules, a district document shows. Earlier this year, one family complained that an assistant coach threatened to revoke their son’s financial aid at Academic Institute if the student didn’t continue playing football at Bellevue.
School-district leaders initially sought to have the booster club answer questions about its relationship with Academic Institute. But, after a brief email exchange, they let it drop.
Darien Freeman, a two-time First-Team All-State defensive lineman for Bellevue, played his junior and senior years while attending Academic Institute, which emphasizes helping special-needs students, grades six to 12.
To be able to to join the Bellevue team as a freshman, Freeman needed to live in the district. Because he lived in Sammamish, he said, he used his uncle’s Bellevue address, a likely violation of state prep-sports rules.
After he and his family moved to a Bellevue apartment his sophomore year, Freeman’s dad told him to thank head football coach Butch Goncharoff for helping pay rent. When he did so, Freeman recalled, the head coach replied, “No problem, man. Just keep it up, keep up the hard work.”
Goncharoff declined to comment. The veteran head coach, who has led the Wolverines to 11 state titles since 2001, was suspended in June by the KingCo Conference for two games, in part for providing money to a different player’s family.
The summer before his junior year, Freeman said, Goncharoff directed him to attend Academic Institute. Freeman said his family could not afford the tuition at Academic Institute and doesn’t know who footed the bill.
“I was told I’m going here and everything is going to be taken care of,” Freeman said.
At one point at the private school, Freeman said, he had a class with no instructor — he thinks the teacher quit midway through the semester. The school director, Jennifer Vice, provided him with a book to learn from and later gave him test questions, he said.
After Freeman was accepted into Utah’s Weber State University his senior year, in spring 2013, he stopped doing homework at Academic Institute altogether.
“I’d still take notes in class,” Freeman said. Tests weren’t too hard “because you’d be able to use our notes and stuff like that.”
While on the team, he said he used his uncle’s Bellevue address while living in three other cities: Sammamish, Auburn and SeaTac.
Told of Freeman’s account, a school-district leader replied Thursday that officials take such matters seriously and would be eager to investigate further.
I was told I'm going here and everything is going to be taken care of.” - Darien Freeman, former Bellevue High School football player
Another talented player who attended Academic Institute at Goncharoff’s suggestion had his financial aid coordinated by the prominent Razore family, big boosters of the team, according to one of the boy’s parents. The parent didn’t want to speak publicly, fearing retribution, and asked not to be named.
The parent said Vice, of Academic Institute, never requested information to determine the family’s financial need.
The account of a third Bellevue football player at Academic Institute illustrates ties among the private school, the team and its boosters.
In December, after the team lost the state-title game, starting lineman Omar Dyles was bullied and harassed in the Bellevue High School weight room by the team’s former strength coach, according to a district investigation of the incident. Afterward, Dyles talked of leaving the team.
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After winter break at the Academic Institute, Dyles was called out of a class and into Vice’s office. She then left him there alone with businessman Jeff Razore, an assistant Bellevue football coach at the time.
Dyles said Razore warned him that if he left the team, “he would lose his scholarship at Academic Institute and he would not have the same college football opportunities,” according to district records. Using his cellphone, Razore showed the student a UW football coach’s contact information, records show, “and said things like, ‘I can get you in any school.’ ”
Razore, in the documents, disputed the account. He said he was trying to provide guidance and ended the meeting with a hug. He did not return a call for comment.
The Dyles family declined an interview request.
Vice told The Times in a brief interview that Razore has no influence over student scholarships and “no ties to the school.” She later declined to answer further questions.
Concerns about its practices have been simmering at Academic Institute for years. Jason Gardner taught there for five months before quitting in disgust in October 2011. He described the school as “a diploma mill.”
After he resigned, he filed a formal complaint outlining his ethical concerns with the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, which recommends to the state Board of Education whether such schools should be deemed “approved.” He also sent his complaint to the Bellevue School District.
Gardner said he witnessed Bellevue football players use the private school to buoy grades. Student athletes need a 2.0 average with no more than one failing grade to play.
Gardner disagreed with what he said was the school’s relaxed stance on attendance and completing coursework. “The problem is these kids aren’t doing the course work — they’re being pushed through,” he said in an interview.
Academic Institute, founded in 1980 by former high-school teacher Sherrill O’Shaughnessy, was run by her until Vice, her daughter, took over as school director in fall 2011.
At that point, Gardner said, he noticed a change. “She didn’t have an understanding of how to run the school,” said Gardner, who has a master’s degree in teaching.
Another former teacher, who left the school before Vice took over, said problems were also rampant under O’Shaughnessy.
“We submit our grades and [O’Shaughnessy] gets the authority to make the final decision of who passes and who doesn’t pass,” the teacher said. Grades from instructors were considered “a suggestion.”
It wasn’t just the school director who had control of grades. A parent of a former Bellevue football player who attended the Institute said many others had access to its online grade system.
The parent, who worked for free at the school to help offset its steep tuition, described seeing the mother of another football player change her own son’s grades in the system. The parent alerted Vice to the incident, got an apathetic response, and later was dismissed as a volunteer.
“It was really hard to play football and do your homework,” said the parent, who spoke only if not identified by name. Academic Institute “was a little bit lax on that. You could do that on your leisure. I don’t know how they got accredited.”
“What’s ended up happening is: money talks,” Gardner, the former Academic Institute teacher, told The Times. “That’s the issue. Money’s getting in the way of doing the right thing.”
Money is something the Bellevue football team’s booster club has had fantastic success raising. Much credit goes to the Razore family.
Jeff Razore is perhaps the best known of the four sons of Warren Razore, who ran one of the nation’s largest privately owned garbage companies before selling it in 1998 for a reported $400 million.
Jeff, a principal at wealth-management firm Evergreen GaveKal, married Chantal O’Brien, a runner-up on the reality-TV series “The Bachelor.” He played football for Bellevue High School and served as its special-teams coordinator.
Joe Razore, the oldest brother, is vice president of the booster club, as well as vice president of the W. Razore Family Foundation, which gave $135,125 to the club from 2008 to 2013, tax records show.
The booster club raised $427,181 in 2013. Its annual fundraiser has benefited from such top musical acts as singer Kelly Clarkson and Pat Monahan, lead singer of Train. This year’s fundraiser August 29 features the pop-rock band OneRepublic.
Two weeks later, Bellevue opens its season at home against Bishop Gorman of Las Vegas — ranked No. 3 nationally by MaxPreps.
What's ended up happenings is: money talks. That's the issue. Money's getting in the way of doing the right thing.” - Jason Gardner, former teacher at Academic Institute
When the Bellevue School District looked into the Dyles incident, its investigation spilled over to the Academic Institute.
“Athletes received privileges not available to all students, specific to the free tuition at Academic Institute,” according to an internal district document from May. Free or reduced tuition to Institute students who played football for Bellevue High School was a violation of the Washington Interscholastic Activity Association’s rules on improper inducements for athletes, district officials believed.
In March, Jeff Lowell, district athletic director, tried to set up a meeting between the district’s outside investigator and the head of the football booster club, John Connors, to discuss the club’s relationship with Academic Institute, emails show. Connors, a former Microsoft CFO, offered times to meet.
But a couple of days later, Lowell changed plans, telling Connors the investigator would conclude her inquiry without questioning the booster club, emails show. Vice, the head of Academic Institute, also declined to talk to the district’s investigator.
In June, the school district publicly announced its own investigation found that Bellevue football coaches had improper out-of-season activities with athletes and, against the rules, had provided cash to a player. Goncharoff, the head coach, was suspended for two games.
The district made no mention of Academic Institute.
The investigator’s “primary” concern was the harassment complaint, Lowell recently said, so an interview with Connors wasn’t pertinent.
Connors declined to be interviewed for this story.
As with other private-school students, those who attend Academic Institute full-time are not enrolled in a public school, but can take up to two classes at a school in their home district and participate in extracurriculars, such as sports. As long as students at Academic Institute prove their academic eligibility to Bellevue via transcripts, the school has to let them play.
“They have the right to ancillary services, and we don’t say to them — unless we have reason to — who’s paying your tuition?” John Harrison, an executive director for Bellevue public schools, said. “Right? None of our business. Our business is where they live.
“They’re not our students. They’re not ours. They happen to go to a private school that doesn’t offer a program that the public school offers,” he said.
Before Darien Freeman arrived at Weber State on a football scholarship, he learned that the NCAA was questioning whether to accept some credits from Academic Institute. At least two other recent Academic Institute grads who played football for Bellevue faced the same issue with their college teams.
Freeman said he missed a week of practice at Weber State while it got sorted out.
For the time being, according to the NCAA, it is reviewing Academic Institute credits, on a case-by-case basis, to determine if they meet “academic requirements for NCAA cleared status.”
Freeman left Weber State and football after one year. He now says “if it wasn’t for football, I just feel like I wasn’t wanted” at Bellevue.
He plans to start a new chapter in his life this fall as a student at Central Washington University.
Contrary to an account on its website, the Academic Institute has not been accredited by the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. The agency vets private schools and then recommends them to the state Board of Education for its approval, not for accreditation. OSPI has asked the school to correct its website. An earlier version of this story said that OSPI accredits private schools like Academic Institute.