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District examines case of expelled athletes

Federal Way Public Schools administrators are talking with school district attorneys to find out if they can permanently ban expelled or suspended students from interscholastic sports.

School Board president Earl Van Dorien requested the policy change after learning of a fight last December at Federal Way High School.

Kyle Elliot, a junior at the school, was assaulted by four students when he stepped in to help a smaller student who was being harassed, according to his Elliot’s mother, Julie Sunden.

She said the four students beat Elliot to the ground and repeatedly kicked him. Three of the students were varsity boys’ basketball players.

Elliot was taken to the hospital after the assault. His jaw was not dislocated, but doctors think his palette was punctured or the muscles in his jaw were damaged. Only an MRI will tell, but he still suffers from jaw pain and was recently fitted with a mouthpiece to help realign his jaw, Sunden said.

Elliot had footprints on his head and bruises on his torso. He was kicked in the back of the neck, she said.

Photographs taken after the assault show the left side of his face was swollen and his left eye is puffy and blackened, Sunden said.

“This was not a playground tiff,” she said. “It was a group beating.”

The hearing

The four students were arrested on suspicion of fourth-degree assault, handcuffed and led out of their classrooms the day after the fight. The school district placed all four on emergency expulsion.

Federal Way Police wouldn’t release records on the arrests because the case involves juveniles and because it’s still under investigation.

Two of the alleged assailants have since left the district — “I don’t know where, they just move on,” Sunden said — and a third student was readmitted to Federal Way High because he had an individualized education plan.

Elliot’s parents are upset the district didn’t notify them the third student was readmitted right away, but they’re more angry about the way the district handled the fourth student, who is a starter on the varsity boys basketball team.About 30 days after he was expelled, the basketball player appealed his expulsion to the district, Sunden said. State law says students have only 10 days to file an appeal.

During the appeal hearing, an independent hearing officer — Thomas Schmidt, in this case — met with the expelled student, his grandfather and his uncle for about 40 minutes prior to admitting Elliot and his parents.

Elliot’s parents weren’t allowed to speak during the hearing, because the hearing is part of an expulsion appeal process.

Elliot gave his side of the story and an attorney hired by his parents was allowed to question him. The other student’s grandfather and uncle were allowed to ask Elliot questions.

Elliot got about 20 minutes and then he and his parents were asked to leave.

The hearing lasted another hour, Sunden said. When the group emerged, the hearing officer had reversed the district’s decision and decided to let the expelled student return to school.

Elliot’s parents were surprised at the outcome — and so were district personnel.

It’s unusual for a hearing officer to reverse a district’s expulsion decision, if not simply because districts are aware of the criteria for expulsion and generally have all the elements together before they go to a hearing.

An expelled student could continue the appeal up the ranks to the state Supreme Court if he or she wasn’t satisfied with a hearing officer’s decision, but districts are bound. They have no right of appeal.

At a School Board meeting late last month, schools superintendent Tom Murphy said district administrators didn’t know why Schmidt reversed the district’s decision.

“Whatever caused the hearing officer to change the ruling, I don’t know,” he said. “The district has no appeal.”

Still, Sunden said the district should uphold its own rules and state law — with the 10-day appeal deadline, for example — and school administrators, particularly at Federal Way High, should make themselves more visible during peak passing times to protect students.

Meanwhile, she said, district personnel should conduct an investigation into the assault.

“If a teacher gets beat up, a private firm investigates,” she said. “If my son gets beat up, I get a letter.”

40 fights at FWHS

So far this year, there have been 40 fights at Federal Way High, according to the school district. Thomas Jefferson High reported 16 fights and Decatur reported nine.

But the district doesn’t have a set definition of a fight — it could be anything from heated verbal exchanges to assault.

Schools are required to send incident reports to the state superintendent of public instruction, but the numbers include everything from verbal exchanges to murder, according to SPI spokeswoman Kim Schmanke, and they aren’t broken down by type of incident.

The Federal Way Police Department reported seven assault reports at Federal Way High in 2001, down from 12 in 2000 and 21 in 1999; those assaults could be student-to-student or student-to-teacher.

The police reported five assaults at Decatur in 2001, three in 2000 and two in 1999, but didn’t have statistics for Jefferson because the school falls within the county’s law enforcement jurisdiction.

The school district contracts with the Federal Way Police for school resource officers in each high school, and each junior high has a security officer.

The district also employs four patrol security officers who can provide backup support as needed.

The Kent School District uses a similar system to provide security at its high school campuses. There are two security officers at each of the Kent School District’s four high schools, according to Gary Cooper, security supervisor. They handle cases and write reports and, if things are serious enough, they might call in the police to deal with a situation.

Mark Davidson, the Federal Way district’s assistant superintendent, said there is no district-wide protocol for dealing with violence in school aside from set emergency expulsion rules — assault, bringing a weapon to school or making bomb threats, for example.

There is a district policy that says fighting is not appropriate behavior on campus, though whether a student would be expelled depends on the severity of the fight.

As it stands now, each school is responsible for dealing with fights on campus.

That’s similar to the Kent schools. “It’s pretty much up to each high school,” Cooper said.

Sometimes the number of fights varies, Davidson said, and he couldn’t speculate why there have been so many at Federal Way High this year.

“It is what it is,” he said.

Sportsmanship

Murphy and Davidson said the Federal Way district is looking into an investigation into the assault and checking out whether the district legally can prohibit student-athletes from rejoining their teams if they get back into school following an expulsion.

Van Dorien said prohibiting athletic participation might make students think twice about their actions during the off-season.

“If a kid knows his conduct off the field, out of season, will affect his ability to play, then he or she may model sportsmanlike conduct at all times,” he said.

“Sports are a valuable part of school and a good motivator,” he said. “The problem is the few kids that are disruptive outside of sports. Some will exhibit good discipline conduct and meet academic requirements during the sports season ... The rest of the year, grades and discipline suffer to the point where the schools have to suspend these athletes.”

Elliot’s parents have pulled him out of Federal Way High, even though he played varsity football for the school. He’ll begin Running Start at an undisclosed location next year.

Elliot still has trouble sleeping, Sunden said, and he still has pain in his jaw.

He spent many school days afraid once he discovered the students who assaulted him were back. There were never any direct threats, Sunden said, but there were rumors around school that one of the students who allegedly beat him up had a lot of friends and Elliot had better watch out.

His attitude has changed since the attack — vengefulness, forgiveness, resignation and anxiety — but the anger has been a constant, according to Sunden.

Meanwhile, one of the students arrested for attacking Elliot last December is playing in the state 4A high school tournament in Tacoma, starting today.

Elliot’s parents haven’t decided whether they’ll sue the district. “We’re just still upset that this happened to our son,” Sunden said.

Van Dorien said the district should keep athletic participation in perspective, particularly for kids who cause trouble in the off-season.

“A free and public education is a right under our state laws and I defend that right,” he said. “Participating in sports is a privilege and honor and should be treated as such, and I will defend this, too.”

Staff writer Erica Jahn can be reached at 925-5565 and ejahn@fedwaymirror.com

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