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MISD to revisit employee screening steps

The Mercer Island School District will review its screening of potential employees after an incident between a high school senior and an athletic coach led to a police investigation.

In May, Mercer Island police investigated what was termed as an inappropriate relationship between a Mercer Island High School track coach, Elliot Powell, and an 18-year-old Mercer Island High School senior in May.

Superintendent Gary Plano contacted police after a student spoke to high school administrators about what he had witnessed between a fellow student and friend and the track coach a few months earlier.

After learning of this, Plano placed Powell on leave and called Island police. Detective Chad Schumacher, the school resource officer, was assigned to investigate the matter. He stated in the record that both the student and the coach were known to him from previous contacts.

Powell, who had been working part-time since the fall of 2009 as a special education parapro and athletic coach at Islander Middle School, was recently hired in December 2012 to be the track and field coach at the high school this spring. Prior to his work on Mercer Island, Powell worked with students at the Bellevue School District’s Odle Middle School between 2008 and 2009.

The witness told administrators that he had driven his friend, who was intoxicated, to meet the coach after midnight at the Bellevue Park and Ride. The student got into the car with the coach and the friend witnessed the pair kissing.

The friend also said that the student has told him before that she had seen the coach other times outside of school.

The student later told Mercer Island High School principal Vicki Puckett and associate principal Jamie Prescott that she had been to the coach’s home, but only once, and denied that the two had a relationship or sex.

The student told police that she had begun talking with Powell on Facebook and by texting during the track season. She said she had kissed him at the Bellevue Park and Ride lot, and also said that she had been to his house and once had a meal with him at a South Center restaurant.

Two police officers met Powell at his residence the next day. He denied having any kind of relationship with the student outside of school. He denied that she was in his car or kissed him in the Bellevue lot and told police that the two did not have a sexual relationship. When the detective challenged some of those statements, he did say that he did kiss the student, but again denied a sexual relationship.

At that point, police had Powell call Superintendent Plano. At the conclusion of that conversation, Powell gave his keys to school buildings to police to return to Plano.

Powell later resigned from the school district.

During the last two years, Powell had been stopped by police three times on Mercer Island.

In May of 2011, Powell was booked into jail after being stopped for expired tabs and driving with a suspended license. Powell’s records also show traffic infractions in other counties, including Snohomish and Grant counties. Powell does not drive students for the Mercer Island School District. Powell has also been involved over the past several months in a family matter in King County Superior Court.

Mark Roschy, director of human resources at the Mercer Island School District, said that the district conducts what is considered the standard background check on applicants for any position at the school district. Even volunteers are required to be checked. The school district also checks with six references; three over the phone and three via email.  No issues were found when Powell applied for the job at Islander Middle School in 2009.

When employees change positions within the school district, those checks are not repeated, Roschy said.

The district subscribes to a service called Washington Access to Criminal History or WATCH. The process uses a database of records sent to the state patrol by courts and criminal justice agencies throughout the state. The database includes conviction information, arrests less than one year old with dispositions pending, and information regarding registered sex and kidnap offenders.

In addition, Roschy explained that the application includes a disclosure form that asks if the individual has been arrested or convicted of a crime.

“If I see a DUI from Pullman during college, it is not a good thing. But I can deal with that. I understand that people make mistakes. If someone says that they have not had an arrest or conviction, then I see it on the background check, that is a different matter,” he explained.

“If you lie, you are done,” he said.

Every year, all coaches old and new are required to attend the district’s ‘boundary training,’ Roschy said. It is a way for coaches to understand what level of relationship is appropriate with students.

“The situation with coaches and student athletes is unique,” he explained. “There is a high propensity for involvement because of the level of contact to schedule and organize.”

 

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