Bainbridge school district hires Tacoma lawyer to investigate complaints about Woodward volunteers

Complaints from parents about lunchtime volunteers at Woodward Middle School possibly proselytizing students has led the Bainbridge Island School District to hire an outside investigator to look into the allegations.

Concerns over volunteers at the middle school have been percolating in recent weeks, and those concerns boiled over at last Thursday’s school board meeting, where a standing-room-only crowd of parents and volunteer supporters pressed the school board for action.

This week, district officials said an investigation into the concerns was well under way.

Peter Bang-Knudsen, assistant superintendent of administrative services, said two concerns were raised: How did the middle school’s volunteers become volunteers, and what kinds of interactions have there been between Woodward volunteers and students.

Bang-Knudsen said attorney Shawn Flood will lead the investigation.

An attorney with the Tacoma law firm of Kampbell, Andrews & Arbenz, Flood has already started the investigation.

“She’s interviewed some staff, and some students and parents. She’s got a few more people she needs to interview,” he said.

There is no timeline for completing the probe, Bang-Knudsen said.

“Her main thing is making sure it’s thoroughly done,” he said.

District officials said the results of the investigation will be analyzed to determine if any behaviors or actions of volunteers or staff have violated district policies or procedures.

Last week, Woodward Middle School principal Mike Florian sent an email to parents advising them of concerns that had been making their way through the community about the school’s lunch volunteers being non-parents and youth pastors in the community.

“I have not had a single report of any of our volunteers proselytizing or recruiting students on campus. However, we are taking the concerns brought forward seriously. To ensure that volunteers in our school have been complying with all district policies, we will be having a non-district employee talk with students, staff and parents for the purpose of fact-finding and determining if anyone has violated our policy,” he added.

Florian also said the school recently began background checks for all regular volunteers, including those who help out at lunch. Other district-wide changes were also being considered in the selection process for volunteers, he said.

“The safety of our students is our top priority,” Florian added. “We use dozens of volunteers at Woodward and couldn’t do the job that we do without them. We are so thankful to live in a community where education is valued and adults are involved in our school.”

Florian said that over his past eight years at the school, eight or so community members who don’t have children at Woodward have been helping to supervise students at lunches. Several of the volunteers, he said in his email, have been youth pastors, and others have been parents of former students or grandparents.

“During this time, it has been made clear to these volunteers that school is not a place to promote your political or religious views,” he noted.

Parents concerned about volunteers at Woodward took their worries to the school board late last week after meeting with Florian.

Others who supported the volunteers also attended the school board meeting, and some likened the criticism over the volunteers as a “witch hunt.”

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