UPDATE | Bainbridge school board looks at results of Woodward investigation

The Bainbridge Island School District will stop using volunteers during lunch periods at Woodward Middle School in response to community concerns over youth pastors who have been helping out at the school.

District officials announced the impending change this week after the district released an investigation into allegations that youth pastors were using their volunteer time at Woodward Middle School to spread their religious views.

Superintendent Faith Chapel said the investigation — which did not find evidence that youth pastors were using their volunteer positions at the school to share their religious beliefs with students — revealed “gaps” in the policies and procedures the school district uses to bring aboard volunteers.

The Bainbridge Island School District launched a probe in early October amid concerns that volunteers at the middle school were sharing their religious beliefs with students and proselytizing during their lunchtime visits with children.

The district hired Shawn Ann Flood, an attorney

with the Tacoma law firm of Kampbell, Andrews & Arbenz, to look into the allegations. The investigation reviewed the process used to allow community members to become volunteers at Woodward, as well as what kinds of interactions had occurred between volunteers at the school and students.

Flood did not mention the youth pastors by name in her report, which was dated Nov. 27.

“I find that on the whole, youth pastors volunteering in the lunchroom did not use their time and access to students to promote religion or convert students to their faith. I find no evidence that Youth Pastors engaged in prayer with students, blessings over meals, bible study, distribution of bibles or religious literature, discussions about God or Jesus, or preaching in general.”

Flood said there were two exceptions, however.

“In one incident, Youth Pastor A acknowledged to me that he was approached by a student with religious questions. The student was a member of his church. The pastor sat with the student out of earshot of other students and answered his religious questions,” Flood reported.

“In the second incident, a student reported to me that he was new to the school this year and while sitting alone at a lunch table waiting for other students to join him, a youth pastor approached him and they introduced themselves and talked a bit. The pastor ended the brief conversation by telling the student he could find him if he ever wanted to talk about religion. No such substantive religious discussion later occurred.”

Flood said she could find no evidence of youth pastors “engaged in counseling or mentoring students at school.”

Flood also said that some students and parents, as well as members of the Woodward staff, said the youth pastors were effective as lunchroom supervisors, and were a deterrent to disruptive students.

The school board met Tuesday to talk about the investigation and next steps.

“We are here to listen to you,” School Board President Mike Spence told the crowd of about 50, which also included two television news crews from Seattle.

Chapel noted that the investigation had identified areas of improvement for the district’s volunteer program.

“We certainly realize there are gaps,” she said, and added that the presence of youth pastors during lunch periods had caused concern in the community.

“It’s caused some students and parents to feel uncomfortable ... and for that we apologize,” she said.

Officials outlined a number of changes, including halting the use of non-paid lunchtime volunteers at Woodward Middle School. WMS is currently the only school that uses volunteers during the lunch hour.

Officials also announced that policies for volunteers will be revised and updated.

Changes to the volunteer program at Woodward are expected to be presented to the school board for approval on Dec. 12.

The district will also revise and update its volunteer policies, procedures and handbook. All schools will now use a common application and screening procedure for volunteers, and volunteers will have clearly defined roles and receive appropriate training.

Only a handful of people offered a response to the investigation.

Some thanked the school board for the investigation, and some noted the toll it had taken in the community.

“My question is, what was the true cost of this investigation?” asked Missa Pine, a Woodward volunteer. “The true cost isn’t just the monetary cost that the school district incurred.

“The true cost was the reputation of these young men,” she said, adding that the men were put on trial by local bloggers and commenters on Facebook.

Those statements were accusatory, biased and misleading, she said.

“Rumor became fact. And that makes me very sad.”

“It just showed to me that there is such a schism about how we profess to embrace and to coexist and love this community and yet when it comes to religion — particularly Christian religion — we have this wall that we put up.”

Dawn Weber, one of the parents who raised concerns about volunteers with the school board in October, said that the parents who came forward did not make allegations against the youth pastors.

“That is patently untrue and it’s never been a part of the conversation,” she said.

Weber noted her own Catholic upbringing, and added, “I have no problems with Christians at all.”

“All we wanted to know ... who are they, what role are they fulfilling? Please tell us what their job is. Why have they been identified as positive role models for our children? And why are all of these non-parents evangelical youth pastors? Why is there no diversity? And why are we as parents not aware that they were there for years?”

“We didn’t accuse, we asked questions,” she said.

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