On Sept. 7, Superintendent Mike Hanson announced he would depart from the district in Maple Valley, a suburb southeast of Seattle, at the end of the 2023-24 school year and relocate to Hawaii. Parents had called for Hanson to be fired in the days leading up to the announcement, though the district told InvestigateWest that no “recent events” played a role in the timing of the decision. Hanson did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
InvestigateWest (invw.org) is an independent news nonprofit dedicated to investigative journalism in the Pacific Northwest.
Four days later, two members of the district’s five-person school board resigned, effective immediately, citing a district culture that prevents accountability when it comes to students’ safety.
“Both recent events and patterns of behavior between the board and superintendent have made it abundantly clear that our voices are not valued,” wrote the two board members, Haley Pendergraft and Malia Hollowell, in a statement about their decisions to step down.
Records obtained by InvestigateWest show that although co-workers had alerted administrators to dozens of instances of unprofessional behavior by former paraeducator Bryan Neyers, including close relationships with young boys, Neyers continued working in elementary schools within the district for nearly five years until his arrest in April 2020. In July, the district reached a $3.9 million settlement of a sexual abuse lawsuit filed on behalf of one of the young boys allegedly abused by Neyers, admitting it was negligent in employing him.
Pendergraft declined InvestigateWest’s interview requests. Hollowell did not respond to a request for comment. Though the school board members’ statements do not mention Neyers, Tahoma parents have tied their resignations to parents’ demands for accountability following InvestigateWest’s reporting.
“We do believe that the recent resignations were a direct result of the Neyers case, and the fallout from it,” says a recent blog post on the website Tahoma Values, a political action committee made up of parents and educators that advocates for school-related issues.
For many parents, the resignations underscore a common criticism among the Tahoma community that the district maintains a “good old boys’ club” culture in which personal connections are valued over workplace competence, enabling administrators to sweep problems under the rug without holding one another accountable.
In their statement to the community, Pendergraft and Hollowell — the only two women on the school board at the time — encouraged the superintendent and board president to “deeply reflect on the impact their personal words and behaviors have on the ability for women in our system to serve as leaders whose voices are heard, valued, and respected.”
“The district has long battled criticism for having a ‘good old boys’ club,’” the statement says. “That narrative will only shift one small interaction at a time.”
Pendergraft and Hollowell also emphasized that every board member should have “equal opportunity to raise concerns when they arise without risking backlash, hostility, or retribution.”
“This feeds into many feelings that the community members have of the ‘good old boy, we’ll scratch each other’s back, we will protect each other’ mentality that runs rampant in the Tahoma School District,” said Sarah Brewer, a mother of students in the district who runs a Facebook discussion group for Tahoma community members.
The community mobilizes
Fueled by the resignation announcements that left many of their demands unanswered, Tahoma parents continue to push for district administrators to provide more accountability and transparency in how the district handles student safety concerns.
Brewer started a Change.org petition on Sept. 12 calling for Hanson to take “immediate action” toward holding administrators responsible for the handling of Neyers’ employment. The petition gained over 400 signatures within three days.
Brewer also supported an anonymous fellow Tahoma parent in launching a website on Sept. 14 called Voice 4 Rock Creek. It spotlights over 25 statements that the website says come from teachers, staff and parents at Rock Creek Elementary School, one of the schools where Neyers worked.
“The concerns encompass those raised by the Neyers matter, but go beyond to include several additional concerns indicating a lack of competent leadership,” the website says.
The statements, which were posted anonymously, call out the school’s principal, Chris Thomas, for ignoring concerns about student and staff safety. The statements are anonymous due to teachers’ and parents’ fears of retaliation, according to the website.
Thomas, a 1988 graduate of Tahoma High School, served as principal in the district’s Glacier Park Elementary School before becoming principal of Rock Creek in 2017. District emails show Thomas was alerted to co-workers’ complaints about Neyers at both elementary schools in the years leading up to Neyers’ arrest.
Thomas did not respond to InvestigateWest’s request for comment.
Before launching the website, the Tahoma parent behind Voice 4 Rock Creek shared with district administrators the statements she had collected from staff and parents in the hope that administrators would address the complaints before the school year began.
The district’s public relations director, AJ Garcia, confirmed the district was made aware of much of the website’s content, and that the school board had been informed that the district had received the statements before the website was published.
“We are actively addressing these concerns,” Garcia wrote in an email response to InvestigateWest.
The district implemented a “climate and culture support plan” for Rock Creek at the start of the school year, according to Garcia. The plan included contracting with Emilie Hard, a former district administrator who served as Glacier Park’s principal before Thomas took over in 2010, to provide leadership coaching for Thomas.
“The District’s goal is to foster a school community where every child and adult is safe and supported at Rock Creek Elementary,” Garcia wrote in his response.
Many parents, however, still feel in the dark about how the district intends to hold administrators accountable for student safety issues. Superintendent Hanson’s impending departure after this school year only added to this confusion.
“The superintendent’s letter of leaving the district — not resigning, not getting fired, just saying he’s not returning next year — all feels like an undercutting hand to this community and doubling down on their continuous inaction,” Brewer said. “There’s been a lot of conversation in the parent groups around frustration and a feeling of not knowing what to do next.”
In the wake of Hollowell’s and Pendergraft’s resignations, community members are preparing to vote for three contested Tahoma School Board positions in November.
Hollowell, who was in the midst of a reelection campaign before resigning, will still appear on the ballot against her challenger, Stephen Deutschman. If she wins and chooses not to take the position, the school board will interview and appoint a replacement who will serve until the next board election in 2025, according to the board’s policy.
The board will similarly appoint a candidate to replace Pendergraft, who was in the middle of her four-year term, until the seat is up for a vote in 2025. In addition to Hollowell’s position, the seats for current board President Pete Miller and member Matt Carreon will be voted on in November.
Rather than uniting community members behind a common goal of protecting student safety, however, school board elections tend to divide Tahoma parents along political lines, said Justin Gielski, a father of 12- and 13-year-old students.
“We are the border between conservative and liberal Washington,” he said. “We’ve degraded into this weird tribal warfare community for a nonpartisan school board position.”
Gielski pulled his children out of the district about two years ago because he felt administrators were not adequately responding to districtwide issues like bullying, he said. He hopes to see the school board and administrators take responsibility for student safety concerns so he can bring his kids back to Tahoma schools.
“The school board really is the ultimate authority who can hold the district accountable in changing course, and they just haven’t,” he said.
Rather than focusing on school board elections, Brewer and her husband, William Brewer, advocate for a third-party investigation into the district’s actions regarding Neyers to ensure the same mistakes are not made again.
“You’ve got the school board feeling powerless in not being able to do so, and the superintendent not choosing to and choosing to leave,” William Brewer said. “So it really only leaves the community to stand up and say, ‘Hey, not only is an investigation needed, but somebody needs to take accountability for the negligence that existed here.’”
InvestigateWest (invw.org) is an independent news nonprofit dedicated to investigative journalism in the Pacific Northwest. Reporter Kelsey Turner can be reached at email@example.com.