The state’s largest school district on Tuesday confirmed that a third-party investigator could not substantiate allegations of improper recruitment of student athletes to play football at Garfield High School.
An independent investigation into allegations of football-recruitment violations at one of Seattle’s flagship high schools yielded no evidence to back up those claims, according to Seattle Public Schools.
The state’s largest school district on Tuesday announced that a third-party investigator could not substantiate reports of improper recruitment of student athletes to play football at Garfield High School.
However, the investigation remained narrowly focused. Several individuals named in the original allegations and subsequent anonymous tips refused to cooperate with the investigator, according to a copy of his report obtained by The Seattle Times.
“Today’s report officially completes the investigation,” Kim Schmanke, a spokeswoman for the district, said in an email. “Because it is an administrative process, witnesses can’t be forced to make statements, and we have to move forward based on the findings.
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“As soon as we learned of allegations of improper recruiting, we immediately sought an outside investigator to remove any bias from the outcome.”
Regardless of the investigation’s limitations, the district used its findings to dismiss concerns of violations of recruitment rules set by the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) that prohibit promoting a school’s athletic program to attract particular students.
“The allegations against our employees were not substantiated,” the district said in a statement. “The investigation concludes there is no evidence that head football coach, Joey Thomas, violated WIAA and district recruiting rules.”
Mike Colbrese, executive director of the WIAA, said Thompson’s investigation may not necessarily put an end to the matter. Garfield and other member schools in the organization could formally request an investigation from the league or its regional district.
The Seattle Times in April reported on the possible violations tied to Will Sanders, a 19-year-old from Texas who says he was flown to Garfield High with promises of athletic opportunity.
Despite poor grades that would have made him ineligible to play, Sanders spent last fall’s football season as a running back for the Bulldogs while bouncing between the homes of a track coach and team parents.
Reached by phone Tuesday, Garfield Principal Ted Howard declined to answer questions about the investigation. He cited concerns with how the Times portrayed him and other black employees of the school.
Thomas, the coach, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
But in an interview with the investigator, Philip Thompson of Seattle-based Perkins Coie law firm, Thomas denied that he bought or helped buy airline tickets for Sanders to come to Seattle, or that he urged him to play football for Garfield.
“Thomas claimed that the notion that he recruited Student A (Sanders) to play football at Garfield is implausible,” the report reads. “Thomas noted that Garfield already had two talented running backs.”
After the football season ended, Sanders said he was encouraged to return home for the Thanksgiving holiday, with promises that he could return to Garfield.
“They told us they would pay for us to come back up after Thanksgiving,” Sanders previously told The Seattle Times, referring to himself and another youth who had been flown up from the city of Beaumont, in southeast Texas. “But when I called, Coach Thomas starts giving us the runaround, and that was it. They just left us.”
A month later, district records show Sanders had been officially removed from Garfield’s student database.
According to the investigator’s report, Thomas denied that he gave Sanders the “runaround,” but acknowledged that he did offer to buy Sanders a return airline ticket.
“Thomas subsequently changed his mind because he thought doing so might be improper.”
Thompson, in the same interview with Sanders, attempted to question a second student who joined the Bulldogs from Texas. But that student would not answer questions.
The investigator also got little information from the father of a teammate who financially supported Sanders while he was in Seattle and who told Thompson that he paid for both students’ airfare to return home.
Thompson also tried to interview John McKinney, father of former Garfield football standout Cameron McKinney — another youth from Texas who found success at Garfield and earned an athletic scholarship to the University of North Dakota after playing one season with the Bulldogs. But McKinney would not make himself available for an interview, the report says.
Sanders has said McKinney connected him with Thomas to discuss Garfield.
McKinney’s name appeared on each student’s enrollment paperwork. And Howard told the investigator that McKinney introduced Sanders as his nephew, the report says.
“It is believed,” the report states, that Sanders lobbied McKinney to bring the second student to Seattle.
According to Thompson’s report, the district received several anonymous complaints of improper recruitment of other students at Garfield. Thompson noted there is a “body of evidence” that casts doubt on the validity of residences for some high-profile athletes who transferred to Garfield.
But, “the individuals who have made the allegations of improper recruiting, and have talked to the investigator, have not produced direct evidence that Thomas had a hand in the transfers,” Thompson wrote.
The investigator added that he attempted to contact the parents of some transfer students for interviews but “did not meet with success.”
“Thomas denies recruiting any of the students,” the report says.
Colbrese of the WIAA said his organization has not received a request to look into suspected recruiting violations since a 2016 investigation of the Bellevue High School football program found that coaches and staff violated interscholastic rules for years, and that the district interfered.