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Juanita High School students protest security guard’s controversial dismissal | Update
Juanita High School senior Rachel Sibley waved a picket sign that read “We support you, Jeff” as she sat atop a student’s shoulders on May 23.
The principal and an official with the Lake Washington School District looked on as more students joined the crowd out on the football field.
More than 100 students protested the dismissal of their beloved security guard Jeff Lewis.
“Bring Jeff back!” the crowd cheered, while others chanted, “Jeff is an awesome guy, [the] accusations are a lie!”
At the end of the day, about 500 had signed a petition to bring the former Staff Star back.
“Our school really isn’t the same place without him,” said student Ryan Keyes, co-organizer of the student-led walkout. “Everybody looked up to him.”
Last March, Lewis was recognized as an exemplary staff member.
“[Jeff] looks the part of a tough, no-nonsense security guard. But once you spend a little bit of time with him, you see the gentler side. You see a man who cares a lot about the students, staff and school where he works,” stated the district article written about Lewis when he received the Staff Star recognition. Lewis worked at the school as a security guard for six years.
But the man who once served special needs youth for 11 years at Lynnwood High School, was put on paid administrative leave in January after an incident with a female student.
School district spokesperson Kathryn Reith, who was at the student-led walkout, said because the terms of Lewis’s dismissal are a “personnel matter” the district cannot speak to the specifics.
“… And that’s hard for the kids too because they don’t have the information that was gathered by our HR department about any of it,” Reith said. “We absolutely understand the emotions that are there and appreciate their wanting to express those emotions.”
The Reporter requested to see public documents regarding the investigation and is awaiting said documents.
While it is unknown when, why or how Lewis or the school district decided he wouldn’t be coming back, the students and staff recently found out and have taken great strides to change the district’s mind. Students have held walkouts and they’ve spoken at school board meetings and given out accompanying letters.
An incident between Lewis and a female student occurred on Jan. 23. Corporal Deb McGuire with the Kirkland Police Department was called to the school for an assault complaint from the girl’s mother.
According to the police report, the female student was sitting atop of a lunch table when Lewis told her to get down. After some time, he walked by again and noticed she and her friend were still on top of the table.
Lewis once again told the girls to get down. The girl said in the police report she didn’t think much of what he said because she was talking to her friend. She avoided eye contact with Lewis as he told her to go to the office. She said he “grabbed her by the left upper arm” while doing so.
The girl went to throw napkins in the garbage and Lewis again grabbed her by the arm but she “twisted away,” the police report continues.
At that point, she said Lewis grabbed her backpack, causing the contents to spill on the floor. When she went to pick them up, she said he “pushed her into the door of the attendance office and told her to sit on a chair.” Apparently the girl “did not feel like talking” once in the office and left to go take her finals, the report continues.
The police report states McGuire then met with Principal Gary Moed, but when he went to check on the girl, he found her mother in the room helping her write her personal statement.
McGuire then contacted Lewis, who explained the only interaction he had with the girl after telling her to get off the lunch tables, was when he touched her arm to direct her to the attendance office. After she started walking in the other direction, he heard her say she did not have to go, nor did she need to listen to him.
“He said she turned as if to walk away and he grabbed hold of the back strap of her backpack in an effort to re-direct her,” the police report continues. “She immediately shrugged out of her backpack, causing it and contents to drop to the floor.”
After she picked up the items, Lewis said he put his arms out in an effort to direct her to the office, then told her to sit down.
“He said at no time did he strike, punch, grab or in any way assault her,” McGuire noted in the police report.
Based on the conversations McGuire had with the girl, her mother, the principal and Lewis, the corporal stated at the end of the police report it did not appear a crime took place.
A section in the Juanita High School employee handbook addresses physical contact with a student and states: “It is the district’s expectation that all physical conduct between employees and students must be professional and appropriate. Never touch a student in anger or when upset.”
Lewis declined to comment on the incident.
But shortly after Lewis was placed on paid leave, the LWSD launched their own internal investigation and the students were without a security guard.
“The few months that Jeff has been gone, I noticed a lot more incidents of bullying and people leaving campus,” said Thomas Zapletal, co-organizer of the walkout. “Now, we have a temp security guard and it’s really hard for him to gain the respect of the students because he’s filling some pretty big shoes.”
Although students say crimes such as graffiti, smoking on campus or drug dealing have occurred in the time Lewis was gone, Moed said not much has changed because administration took over the role of security guard and has had a heavier presence.
“I think it may be a perception that more incidents occurred, but I don’t think the data would support that,” Moed said. “I think it’s an expression of students missing the security.”
Moed said May 23 was the first walkout of that type that he’s seen in all the seven years he’s been at Juanita High School, but he’s proud of the way it was conducted and that students learned about democracy in the process.
During the walkout, students shared their feelings about Lewis and his dismissal.
“It broke my heart,” said senior Rachel Sibley. “It broke his too. It’s really, really sad.”
She said she hopes the district will bring Lewis back.
“I know they can’t this year, but in the future it would be so amazing. He’s a sweetheart,” said Sibley.
Senior Brian Brooks agreed.
“He was the best security guard. Lots of kids would say he was one in one million; he was more like one in one billion. He was perfect for the school,” he said.
Brooks added that Lewis “saved lots of kids from being delinquent. He worked with these kids with respect more than punishment.”
Students have also set up a Facebook page to show their support for Lewis.
Students and one teacher also attended a LWSD school board meeting on May 20 to try to convince Superintendent Traci Pierce that Lewis isn’t a bad guy and they want him back.
“[Jeff’s] presence made me feel much safer at Juanita, because I knew that he had all the students’ best interest in mind and he would do whatever he could to make us feel safe and welcome at our school,” wrote student Colin Pate. “Every incident that he handled was dealt with smoothly and calmly, with minimal disruption of the learning environment.”
However, the girl’s mother Mercete Gogo feels different.
“He had no right to put his hands on my daughter and he did it extensively as well,” Gogo said, who is a surgical technician in the U.S. Army. “The only thing I wanted to see was him be reprimanded – he put marks on my daughter’s arm.”
Gogo noted the day the incident occurred, students had finals and an early dismissal at noon. She said all the students had lunch during the same period that day and her daughter sat on a table with a friend because the cafeteria was crowded.
“She was roughly, physically handled by Mr. Lewis just for sitting on a table. That’s why she was in trouble that day,” said Gogo. “I don’t know what he had going on that day, but he had some issues obviously because he hovered over my daughter and the physical contact wasn’t necessary at all. My daughter said she could see in his eyes that there was something else going on with him.”
She said Lewis grabbed her daughter’s arm and “roughed her up,” causing her to drop her paperwork. When her daughter bent over to pick up her papers, “[Lewis] grabbed her backpack,” said Gogo. “He grabbed and jerked her and then shoved her into the door of the office. I’m surprised nobody saw it … She was grabbed by Mr. Lewis but sent back to class in tears.”
She added that Lewis allegedly put his fist below her daughter’s breast area, as the police report said.
When Gogo went to the school to pick up her daughter, she was in tears.
“Had [school officials] investigated further or let staff know what was going on I believe they would have been able to call me,” she said. “They clearly didn’t know what was going on until I got there.”
When she went into the school office, she said Lewis “was being this big bad guy with his chin up. He just stood there and aggravated the situation even more.”
However, Lewis told McGuire in the police report that when Gogo walked to the office with her daughter he heard her say, “Not only is he a bad ass, he’s a fat ass too.”
After McGuire questioned her, Gogo took her daughter to the EvergreenHealth Medical Center emergency room for an evaluation.
“It was pretty disturbing because he had his fingerprints on her arm, [which] was noted at Evergreen,” said Gogo, adding that she took photos of the alleged fingerprints on her daughter’s arm at the advice of a social worker.
She mentioned the assistant principal also took photos of her daughter’s arm from her iPhone.
But McGuire’s police report contradicts Gogo’s story.
“The only redness I could see was from her rubbing her own arm,” said McGuire in her police report when she asked to see the girl’s arm. “There were no other visible marks, bruises or fingerprints.”
Nonetheless, Gogo pulled her daughter out of Juanita High School in February.
“I didn’t know what was going on with [Lewis]. I guess it’s confidential, [the district] didn’t tell me anything at all,” she said, adding that some students were also harassing her daughter.
She said she recently received a voice message from the district reassuring her that officials took some action with Lewis, but couldn’t specify what that was.
She said she is “happy” the district has taken action and that Lewis is no longer a security guard at the school.
Gogo said she consulted with an attorney early on in the process and now that the district has taken some action, it “solidifies” her legal course that she wants to take against the school district.
Editor Carrie Rodriguez also contributed to this report.