Peter Bang-Knudsen, Bainbridge Island School District Assistant Superintendent, has launched an investigation into the presence of three local youth pastors—one from Island Church, one from New Life, and one from Cross Sound—in an ongoing capacity over three years as volunteers at Woodward Middle School, specifically in the lunch room and at registration.
Parents became concerned about the pastors, who are not parents of children at the school, being allowed regular access to students on the campus of a public school.
Mike Florian, the Principal of Woodward Middle School, told me, “Anybody can volunteer at a public school.” He added that there are guidelines for volunteers and different levels of background checks depending on the capacity in which they are serving the school. He said, “On a regular basis we ask for a background check.” I asked if the pastors had been subjected to a check, and he said only two had, at the basic level. None of them had been subjected to the Washington State Patrol fingerprinting check because, he said, they were never going to be alone with the kids, and two certified staff members were always present when they were around. He did not explain why all three volunteers were not checked.
Most volunteers at the school are recruited through the PTO, which tracks their schedules. Florian told me that volunteers who are parents don’t go through any kind of background check, commenting that “it appears there is a group of parents who think volunteers should only be parents,” which, he said, rules out a good percentage of the volunteers they have. I asked what percentage, and he didn’t know.
The three pastors were originally vetted through his office, as opposed to the PTO, so they were not on any schedules. They are no longer volunteering at the school, per Florian’s request.
Florian said there was never any proselytizing or recruiting, and the volunteers were just there to watch over the kids and make sure rules were followed.
However, three parents I spoke with, all of whom chose to remain anonymous, each said, in separate conversations, that their kids described the presence of the pastors as “creepy.” One child said that one of the men had asked for her name and asked for names of other kids. But no one has yet offered any concrete evidence that the pastors spoke to the kids about religion or their particular churches.
One of the parents said that Florian had reported to her that he felt the three men were “positive male role models” for the kids.
After parents met with Florian and Bang-Knudsen, the latter decided to launch an investigation into the issue. At the upcoming school board meeting on Thursday, October 10, during public commentary parents will be invited to speak about their concerns. Florian said he will be on hand to answer questions.
This afternoon, October 8, Florian issued a letter to parents explaining what is going on and why. He wrote,
Over the eight years I have been at Woodward, we have had approximately 8-10 community members that have not been parents of current students but have volunteered their time to supervise at lunches. Several of these volunteers have been youth pastors. Several were also former parents of our students or grandparents. During this time, it has been made clear to these volunteers that school is not a place to promote your political or religious views. Our current district policy and procedure 4311 provides the guidance that “Any person whose intention is to pressure or solicit students for commercial, religious, or illegal purposes shall not be permitted on the school grounds, nor shall any person be allowed to engage in campaign activities for state, local or national elections at district facilities during the times they are in use for district-related activities.
He added, “To ensure that volunteers in our school have been complying with all district policies, we will be having a non-district employee talk with students, staff, and parents for the purpose of fact-finding and determining if anyone has violated our policy.”
School Board President Mike Spence told me he had heard that the pastors were there at the invitation of either Florian or assistant Principal Kristin Nelson. He wondered if maybe they had felt they were in a bind in terms of needing more volunteer help. Spence said that Bang-Knudsen was currently working to select the investigator. He added, “The legal principle is simple: We can’t have any exercise of religion in any of our facilities. Kids have a Constitutional right not to be proselytized to.”
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Photo by Julie Hall.