Lake Washington School District officials revealed more than 100 pages of documents this week from an internal investigation that resulted in the dismissal of a Juanita High School security guard.
The investigation launched on Jan. 23 after a 16-year-old girl and her mother claimed the security guard hurt her when he allegedly forced her into the principal’s office. The girl had been disobedient when he asked her to get off of a school lunch table and she repeatedly refused to go to the office, the investigation documents state.
In late May, Juanita High School students held a protest to bring back Jeff Lewis, the former security guard, when it was clear he would not be returning from a then-four-month-long paid administrative leave of absence.
Students, parents and teachers also wrote letters to the district’s school board and 500 students signed a petition in support of Lewis’s return.
But district officials could not disclose why he would not return and many people in the community were left wondering how Lewis – who the district recognized as an exemplary staff member last March – could be put in such a situation.
In a written statement on Jan. 23, a Juanita High School female student described how she was treated in an incident that happened that morning. Because it was a combined lunch due to finals, the lunchroom was crowded and she and a friend were sitting on a table near the art hall. Lewis told the girls to get off the table. The girl, who remains anonymous due to privacy laws, explained she forgot and sat back down a while later.
As the girls resumed conversing, Lewis walked by and saw the girls on the table again.
“I gave him a small smile to say ‘oops and that I’m sorry,’” wrote the girl in her statement. “I forgot I wasn’t supposed to sit on the table, but before I said anything, Jeff says, ‘Do you take it as a joke when I’m telling you not to sit on the table? Are my words a joke to you?’”
The girl said Lewis stood very close to her and she felt awkward, and as a result, turned away from him to dispose of her lunch.
Lewis told her to go to the office but she said “no, let me throw my trash away first,” according to her statement.
After the girl walked a few steps, she said Lewis took her left arm tightly from behind with the other hand behind her neck.
“He was holding me very tightly so I said ‘don’t touch me like that,’” she said. “His hands were still on me and was pushing me towards the office door.”
She stated she continued to go the other way to throw away her trash, and she heard Lewis say, “You’re gonna go where I tell you to go,” as he allegedly jerked her backwards by her backpack. She yelled, “No, I’m not going to the office.”
Lewis continued to “shove” her into the office as her bags fell, she claimed.
“I thought he was being too aggressive, so I tried to escape by pulling away from him,” she wrote. “He wouldn’t let go of me.”
She said her phone dropped under a nearby table, and when she went to retrieve it, he held tighter to her left arm and “pushed up underneath [her] right breast with his hand in a ball.”
The two eventually got into the office and Lewis called administration for help on his radio dispatch.
After associate principal Tim Hupperten arrived, Lewis gave his account, and when Hupperton asked the girl what happened she said she didn’t feel like talking and asked to be given her punishment so she could go back to class and take her final, her statement continues.
The girl was released after she said Hupperten told her, “You have to listen to Jeff, his words are gold around here” and associate principal Gloria Heier would discuss punishment with her later, according to her testimony.
In a handwritten interview transcribed by an unknown person with a redacted name, Lewis recounts the incident and answered questions on March 18.
The notes state Lewis said he grabbed the girl’s backpack after she disobeyed his command to go to the office. He said she tried to get away, so he put his arm out. He told her to sit down once in the office and then called for help on his radio.
Broken notes from the interview say that Lewis said his “job is to escort” and that he “tried to talk to them.”
“I have had to get physical with a couple of kids,” the notes indicate Lewis said. “During the time, you feel bad when you force someone to do things they don’t want to do.”
The broken notes continue to say Lewis said he did not “touch her enough for bruises” and that he did not intentionally touch her breast if he had.
“But I thought I handled it well at the time. I have learned my job is not what I thought it was,” Lewis said in the notes.
After concluding the interview, the unknown author writes “district philosophy – minimize liability” at the end of a list that includes the words “similar situations – what happened?” and “history.”
Two days after the incident, staff interviewed five student witnesses, whose names were redacted in documents. All said Lewis grabbed the girl by the arms, pushed her and shoved her toward the office doors.
A witness, who claims to be the friend who was initially sitting on the table with the girl, said Lewis grabbed her friend’s arms but she tried to get away and pushed back.
Two other witness statements say they saw her fall in front of the office but they speculated it might have been herself “tripping over her own feet” or that she “fell by herself.”
And another witness said Lewis picked her up with his hands under her armpits as she dragged her heals across the floor.
Attendance secretary Jennifer Hamilton said in a witness statement that she saw the girl start to come into the office but was “clearly pushing backward against someone else while kicking her feet out and going limp.”
Hamilton continued that Lewis was behind the girl and had one arm wrapped around her, over one of her arms “like he had tried to restrain her arms and simply pick her up to lift her into the office.”
Kris Blanch, the athletic secretary, also wrote a witness statement but only described seeing Lewis telling the girl to sit down and that he “may have” had his hand on her shoulder.
The day of the incident, the girl’s mother Mercete Gogo came to pick her up and saw her daughter in tears. After going to the office demanding to know what happened, principal Gary Moed explained the district’s protocol for how investigations are handled; however, unsatisfied, Gogo called police, according to the Kirkland police report.
A witness statement with a redacted name, but clear to be Moed’s statement, indicates that after speaking with the mother, he asked to see if there was an injury.
“I did not observe any discoloration,” the statement said.
Corporal Deb McGuire came to the school to speak with the parties involved and only determined it an incident. McGuire said in a police report the only discoloration she could see on the girl’s arm was from where she had been previously rubbing it.
Gogo took her daughter to the emergency room to be examined.
The next day Gogo informed school officials that doctors found abrasions on the elbow that Lewis allegedly grabbed, according to the investigation documents. She said her daughter’s leg had a knick on it and that Lewis’s handprint was on her arm.
But when school officials asked to see the documentation, Gogo said she would “take care of it” and that she would be contacting police later that day to make an addendum to the initial police report.
When district attorneys asked Kirkland police for the addendum, they were told there had been no further calls or reports.
“We are looking to the employee’s actions and also assessing our future risk if the family files a lawsuit against the district,” wrote the school district’s attorney David Seeley to Kirkland police in an email on Feb. 1. “ … We are therefore trying to determine if there was a second police report actually made by the mother and if there was, we would like to obtain a copy of the report. Obviously it is important for the district to know if the student was actually injured and at this point, the mother is refusing to provide the district with that information.”
When the Reporter spoke to Gogo on June 24, she declined to provide information on the supposed photos she took of her daughter’s arm.
“The investigation was based off of witness statements and interviews … and it’s based off of their testimonies and that’s the bottom line,” said Gogo, who eventually moved her daughter to a different school due to bullying. “ … They made the determination that there’s sufficient evidence to dismiss [Lewis] and it’s legitimate.”
In 2007, Lewis was placed on paid administrative leave during an Edmonds School District investigation, documents state. Lewis was involved in an incident that led to an autistic student’s broken wrist. But after three months of investigating, the Edmonds School District assistant superintendent Ken Limon informed Lewis on Oct. 8, 2007 that based on the information gathered, he did not believe Lewis deliberately or willfully sought to cause the student injury during the physical interaction.
Furthermore, the decision was based on testimony from Lewis and other witnesses who explained it was merely an accident and the student had been aggressive.
Edmonds School District documents state on June 21, 2007 Lewis, who worked with special needs students at Lynnwood High School at the time, removed an aggressive male student from a classroom. The student had disobeyed the teacher and began to slap her until Lewis stepped in.
Once outside the classroom, the student grabbed at Lewis and hit him several times. Lewis told the student to “stop” and “make good choices” several times and gently pushed him back more than once, the documents continue.
In his testimony, Lewis said this was the way to deal with this particular child’s tantrums.
But the boy fell backwards and subsequently broke his wrist.
After the school district consulted with police and understood there wouldn’t be any charges filed, the mother and the school district settled the dispute for $40,000 and paid $79,000 toward the mother’s attorney fees.
Lewis explained he was told to push the student back, as opposed to other moves, such as a “take down” or a “wall hold” because those maneuvers would hurt the student, according to the investigation.
Lewis was back at Lynnwood High School for the start of the new school year.
Terms of agreement
In the middle of Lewis’s paid leave from Juanita High School, Darryl Pernat, the associate director of human resources for the Lake Washington School District, sent a letter to Lewis on March 14. Pernat gave Lewis the opportunity to respond to allegations that he “acted inappropriately toward a student … which culminated in [Lewis] grabbing her by the backpack and possibly by the arm, which in turn is alleged to have caused bruising.”
Pernat cited the district’s staff conduct policy, which states the board expects staff will set an example for students by their own behavior and create a friendly, yet professional, environment.
Investigation documents do not reveal whether Lewis met with Pernat on the scheduled meeting for March 18 but Lewis’s account in the previously mentioned broken notes match the same date.
Then in early May, investigation documents show email correspondence between Pernat and Lewis’s attorney Judith Lonnquist. The two negotiated on the terms of Lewis’s resignation in lieu of being terminated “for cause,” which was offered to Lewis in person, according to a May 1 email from Lonnquist.
Pernat said in a May 2 email that the district planned on terminating Lewis on May 6, but should Lewis resign prior to that time, the district would accept his resignation immediately and pay him through June.
But after seeing requested documents, Lonnquist shot back in an email that Lewis “acted within the course and scope of his duties” and that the police investigation and school investigation “failed to corroborate” that her client did anything inappropriate at all.
“Instead, it appears that Mr. Lewis has fallen victim to an overzealous and unreliable parent who has consulted with legal counsel and removed her child from the school,” Lonnquist wrote in her May 6 email. “It appears that as a result of this external pressure, the Lake Washington School District felt it necessary to take disciplinary action, which will cause it to lose a highly effective and beloved member of the Juanita High School community.”
However, because of personal reasons Lewis decided to resign as long as the agreement was mutual.
Per separation agreement documents, the district agreed to pay Lewis through August and will provide medical benefits through September. The district agreed to remove his personnel files related to the incident as well as to return a vindication letter from the Edmonds School District, which exonerated Lewis from any alleged wrongdoing in his prior position.
However, the district declined to provide a letter of recommendation or reference and Lewis agreed to make himself available to provide “truthful testimony on behalf of the [district] in regard to any future proceedings brought by the student at issue.”
The mutual resolution and separation of employment agreement further outlines the district will refrain from challenging any future unemployment claims by Lewis after final compensation. The agreement also states Lewis waives his right to any claim for personal damages or personal relief.
Furthermore, the agreement does not constitute the district’s nor Lewis’s admission of any wrongful acts.
And in agreeing to the terms, Lewis would “forever release the district and the released parties from all claims arising out of and relating to the employment relationship between [Lewis] and the district and the termination thereof” and that in signing the agreement it is his “free and voluntary” act and “not the result of coercion.”
Due to the terms of the agreement, Lewis declined to comment.
Kathryn Reith, communications director for the Lake Washington School District, declined to comment specifically on the incident due to a confidentiality agreement between Lewis and the district.
However, she emphasized that district policies are different than those of law enforcement.
“A staff member does not have to do something that rises to the level of assault in order to be an issue with our district policies,” said Reith. “We have policies around conduct and our expectations with employee conduct that are different than the criminal code.”
One of those polices regards staff conduct: “The board expects that the entire staff shall strive to set the kind of example for students that shall serve them well in their own conduct and behavior and contribute toward a school atmosphere that is friendly, but has a degree of formality.”
She said the district conducts staff training every year around staff conduct, including maintaining appropriate boundaries with students and acting appropriately as role models.
The district also has a policy on harassment, intimidation and bullying of students. The district strives to provide students with “optimal conditions for learning by maintaining a school environment where everyone is treated with respect and no one is physically or emotionally harmed,” according to the policy.
Reith also noted that the district engages in “progressive discipline.”
“Many cases involving staff discipline are difficult,” she said. “We have to look at a lot of different things and make the best decision as possible in the best interest of the students.”