Lawsuit filed Wednesday claims some players and their familes were subjected to discrimination, misconduct and negligence during the investigation into the Bellevue football team in 2016.
Jennifer Ifanse, mother to Wolverines star running back Isaiah, joined two other families in a lawsuit against the Bellevue School District and Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) claiming discrimination, misconduct and negligence during the WIAA’s probe into Bellevue football. The suit was filed in King County Superior Court on Wednesday and is slated to go to trial in October 2018.
Marianne Jones, whose husband Pat is a former Bellevue assistant football coach, is the acting attorney.
“(We want) rules in place that protect due process and protect students and their families from having to go through situations like this,” said Jones, who represented her husband on multiple suits, including the handling of his and former head coach Butch Goncharoff’s dismissal and a pending defamation suit against the WIAA.
“The families filed HIB (harassment, intimidation, and bullying) complaints with the school district and it ignored the complaint,” said Jones, who also established the website protectbellevuestudents.com to get the families’ stories told. “It’s to the point where if we’re going to force them to acknowledge and be accountable for their actions, we have to sue.”
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Via email, WIAA executive director Mike Colbrese said the association “will respond to these accusations through the legal system and will defend the opportunities for over 400 schools and 500,000 student-participants across the state.”
The school district declined to comment, directing questions to the WIAA “as it was their investigation.”
In 2016, the WIAA appointed two former federal prosecutors, Bob Westinghouse and Carl Blackstone, to independently handle an investigation of the Bellevue football program after a series of articles in The Seattle Times depicted recruiting and out-of-season coaching violations. Westinghouse and Blackstone uncovered numerous improprieties that resulted in WIAA sanctions.
Bellevue was banned from the postseason for four years (it was twice reduced and became a one-year ban), it had to play a reduced schedule in 2016 and it can’t accept support from an outside booster club for four years.
But the process, according to the lawsuit, subjected the families to harassment and bullying by the investigators and the families were unsupported by BSD.
Isaiah Ifanse, Bellevue senior receiver Antonio Hill and former Bellevue lineman Eron Kross and their families are the plaintiffs in the suit. They said they volunteered to be interviewed by the investigators after being told via letter from the school it was necessary to help the football program defend itself.
The players, who attended the interviews with their mothers, said they were told Bellevue athletic director Lauren McDaniel would be present and prevent any inappropriate questioning. Topics, according to a letter to parents from John Harrison, the Bellevue executive director of schools, were to be restricted to gathering information about Academic Institute, the private school accused of aiding Bellevue’s football program. Parents said they were expecting to be asked whether their children attended AI, if boosters provided any payments for tuition, housing subsidies or falsified documents to prove if they lived within the district and whether coaches were giving them money.
All claim they were unsupported by McDaniel. Hill and Ifanse, who are black, said they were interrogated about how their families could afford to live in Bellevue — a predominantly white and wealthy city. Kross, whose white family relocated from Florida, was only asked to reveal personal information about his black teammates, according to his mother Karla.
Lawsuit documents state Westinghouse and Blackstone, who are both white, compiled a list of 42 Bellevue student-athletes who transferred to the school during an eight-year span to possibly question. Of those, 35 are minorities. Jones said she knows of six families that were questioned and said the four black families had similar experiences.
Westinghouse and Blackstone said, in the WIAA report published in 2016, that accusations of racism in this investigation were “absolutely unwarranted and may have been sparked by the strategy that the ‘best defense is a good offense.’ ”
Jennifer Ifanse works in Gig Harbor and moved to Bellevue from Olympia with her three youngest children in order to help support her eldest son while he attended Bellevue College. She said Westinghouse and Blackstone questioned her commute, how she paid her rent and could afford personal football training sessions.
“They looked at each other and laughed at us and told us we’re lying. (I said) this is the truth, I am telling you,” she said. “The most painful part about this was McDaniel was sitting there but mentally, she’s not there. They would ask me a question and I would look at her and nothing. … I left there with tears in my eyes and feeling bad for my son, too. We did that for what? Coming to Bellevue?”
McDaniel is on a leave of absence and could not be reached for comment, and Westinghouse declined to comment.
In September, the WIAA lifted the final year of a two-year postseason ban on Bellevue football. The Wolverines (8-1) play Hudson’s Bay (6-3) Saturday in the Class 3A state preliminary round.
“We’re taught to be accountable on the football field and to our teammates, and it’s time for Bellevue School District and the WIAA to step up and be accountable for their actions, too,” Hill said. “With this lawsuit, I finally feel like our experience will be acknowledged and no longer minimized.”