Tahoma School District ignored repeated warnings of ‘grooming-like behavior’

State education officials say case highlights need for more oversight of paraeducators.

By Kelsey Turner, InvestigateWest

More than four years before paraeducator Bryan Neyers was charged with sexually abusing young boys, his school’s dean of students emailed the principal about his behavior:

“I feel there are loose ends with Bryan.”

Neyers, then a 19-year-old playground assistant at Glacier Park Elementary School in Maple Valley, southeast of Seattle, had been overheard saying, “I’ll give you a nickel if you suck my pickle” around students in the lunchroom, according to emails obtained by InvestigateWest.

The incident was one of the first complaints school administrators received describing what co-workers later characterized to law enforcement as Neyers’ “grooming-like behavior.” But just like the dozens of other warning signs reported to administrators in the years leading up to Neyers’ arrest in April 2020, Neyers faced no real consequences and continued to work with children, records show.

Neyers awaits trial on Sept. 5. on charges of molesting two boys in the district’s COVID-19 day care center, raping a boy during a summer field trip, and raping and molesting a boy in the district’s enrichment program. Each boy was between 5 and 9 years old at the time Neyers allegedly abused him, with the earliest case dating back to 2014. The Tahoma School District, meanwhile, reached a $3.9 million settlement in a sexual abuse lawsuit filed on behalf of one of the young boys, admitting its negligence in continuing to employ Neyers despite his co-workers’ complaints.

Emails and public records reviewed by InvestigateWest reveal the repeated efforts of at least eight district employees to notify higher-ups in the Tahoma School District about Neyers’ behavior. Records show co-workers raised concerns that he let students, typically boys, sit on his lap; he bought things for students, including food and gifts; he texted and took photos of students; he drove students home from school; he spent time alone with students out of sight of other staff members; and he developed close relationships with certain students, particularly fourth- and fifth-grade boys.

Many, if not all, of these instances are considered boundary invasions under Tahoma School District policy. Policy violations can result in disciplinary action “up to and including dismissal,” according to the procedure in place at the time Neyers worked at the district.

Yet apart from a few meetings with administrators, which resulted in a verbal warning and a reminder to comply with the district’s policies in fall 2018, Neyers was never disciplined, records show. The district allowed him to keep working with kids without increased supervision, even letting him spend time with students off the clock at the district’s before-school program.

Administrators repeatedly explained away employees’ complaints as “misunderstandings,” “rumor” and “hearsay,” public records show. Some reasoned that because Neyers was a young, gay man — fresh out of Tahoma High School when he first began working at the district in 2015 — he was being held to a different standard than his co-workers.

InvestigateWest reached out to four district and school administrators by phone and email. None commented. The Tahoma School District declined to comment.

Cases like Neyers’ highlight a need for the state to further examine how paraeducators, as nonlicensed employees with easy access to kids, are investigated for accusations of abuse, according to Catherine Slagle, director of the state’s Office of Professional Practices, which investigates alleged misconduct by educators.

District employees who tried to warn their supervisors about Neyers still feel like the administrators responsible for dismissing their concerns should be held accountable.

“The people that allowed his behavior still work for the district,” said Kobi Brock, Neyers’ former co-worker. “I really feel like somebody should have had to answer for this.”

Co-workers raise red flags

Brock began working alongside Neyers at Rock Creek Elementary School at the start of the 2017 school year. By late October, her “mom’s instinct” told her something was wrong.

Neyers, who worked across five of the district’s six elementary schools from 2015 to 2020, stood out to her as being inconsistent in his work and “very immature for his age,” she said. He spent a lot of time in fifth-grade classrooms, despite the students he was assigned to being on the other end of the school. She noticed that he had a particularly close relationship with one fifth-grade boy, acting in ways Brock describes as “borderline stalking.”

Brock reported these concerns to Rock Creek’s dean of students, John Schuster, and the building manager, Radie Haytack, according to court records. Every time, they brushed off her complaints, Brock said, rather than documenting and investigating the incidents as district policy requires. Schuster declined to comment, referring InvestigateWest’s questions to the district. Haytack did not respond to requests for comment.

“Everybody was just like, ‘He’s a local kid. He’s a little weird, but he’s fine,’” Brock said. “My instincts were telling me that something was wrong, and I felt very strongly about it. And nobody would listen, almost to the effect that they were making it about me and it was my problem.”

Susan Neds, one of Neyers’ co-workers at Glacier Park Elementary, went to Haytack with similar complaints while working with him in 2016. For Neds, it was the accumulation of strange behavior, rather than any single incident, that set off alarm bells in her head. “It was because of all of these subtleties over time,” she said. “Out of context on a random Tuesday, to other people, that might be nothing.”

In one incident, she saw Neyers pick up a student and carry him “like a groom would carry a bride,” according to public records. She reported it to Haytack, who told her Neyers’ behavior was innocent, Neds said.

Like Haytack, Neds tried to give Neyers the benefit of the doubt at first, aware that reporting a gay man for his relationships with boys could reinforce inaccurate stereotypes that people in the LGBTQ community are groomers. She thinks district administrators treaded carefully around Neyers for similar reasons.

“I think people in the district were trying to be self-aware and cautious of how people who are gay are treated in the world already,” Neds said. “But obviously, two truths can exist.”

Meetings with administrators

In November 2017, a few months after starting at Rock Creek, Neyers met with Schuster and Chris Thomas, Rock Creek’s principal, about “blurred lines” between Neyers and his students. Following the meeting, Schuster emailed Neyers a list of recommendations to better set boundaries with students. “It is clear that you greatly care about students and that is good,” Schuster wrote. When reached by InvestigateWest, Thomas referred questions to the district and didn’t comment.

Neyers’ behavior still didn’t change, according to his co-workers.

Schuster met again with Neyers the following summer. Again, Schuster kept an amicable tone. “Being a single male will make people scrutinize your actions more often. It is essential that you filter all your decisions when working with students through this lens to protect yourself from being wrongly scrutinized,” Schuster emailed Neyers after the meeting.

Over the next year, Brock said a handful of employees from various elementary schools and the district’s day care program approached her with questions about Neyers. “Why is he first in line to take kids to the bathroom?” she remembers them asking her. “Why is he doing homework with kids in closets? Why is he showing them movies on his phone?”

In November 2018, she decided to go straight to the district’s human resources director, Mark Koch, with a list of incidents that worried her about Neyers.

Koch and additional administrators met with Neyers that fall to review the district’s boundary policies and trainings, according to the district. But Brock still didn’t see any changes in Neyers’ behavior. (Koch did not respond to requests for comment.)

Neds had also met with Koch about Neyers the previous summer. Her concerns stemmed from a close relationship she’d seen Neyers foster with one particular boy.

Those worries were heightened when she saw Neyers stay after work one day to retrieve a Beanie Baby that the boy had left behind. That evening, Neyers “just so happened” to run into the student’s family at a restaurant, where he returned the toy in front of the family, Neds said.

When Neds later found out Neyers was housesitting for that same boy’s family, she went to HR to meet with Koch. She laid out all the red flags she’d noticed about Neyers from the prior two years, a list of 15 incidents that Koch wrote down after the meeting.

Neyers was pulled into HR shortly after, Neds said. When Neyers came back from HR, Neds remembers the big smile on his face as he told her the meeting was “nothing” and went back to work as if it had never happened.

“I felt just deflated,” she said. “I said everything that I had.”

When news broke that Neyers had been arrested on charges of child molestation, it spread quickly among the district’s paraeducators, Brock said. All the self-doubt her superiors had instilled in her came rushing back, leaving her numb and angry.

Looking back, Brock realizes the district didn’t need to be certain about the allegations to take staff members’ fears more seriously. “You don’t take risks with other people’s children,” she said. “There should never have been any question as to, ‘Is this over-the-red-line enough?’ It’s over the red line. It’s exactly what you tell us not to do. He should’ve been gone.”

Repeated boundary violations

The Tahoma School District, like many other districts in Washington, has a policy in place to maintain staff and student boundaries. The Tahoma district adopted its boundary policy in 2010 and has updated it several times over the years, most recently in 2021.

According to the procedure in place when Neyers worked at the district, boundary invasions include: being alone with an individual student out of the view of others; visiting a student’s home or allowing a student to visit the staff member’s home; and sending text messages to students, unless the student’s parent and building administrator have consented to and receive a copy of the communication.

Public records show Neyers violated each of these boundaries at least once while working at the Tahoma School District.

“There was documentation showing repeated boundary violations and concerns about his behavior around children for a lengthy period of time,” said Steven Reich, an attorney representing the student in the settled lawsuit against the district. “It’s tempting for school districts to find a rationale for the behavior other than sexual abuse, and I think in some of these instances, that’s what they did.”

When an employee is suspected of violating student boundaries, staff members are required to notify the principal or supervisor. The administrator then must document the concern in writing and provide a copy of the documentation to the director of human resources, according to the district’s procedure. Washington’s mandatory reporting law is even stricter, legally requiring any school personnel who has reasonable cause to believe a child has suffered abuse to report it to law enforcement or the proper state department.

It’s unclear in the public records reviewed by InvestigateWest whether administrators documented in writing each boundary violation reported to them. Brock said she was nearly certain the things she reported to Rock Creek administrators did not get documented. This led to her decision to email Koch directly. “I wanted it in writing,” she said.

The district’s procedure also states that boundary policy violations may be reported to the state’s Office of Professional Practices. But paraeducators, as “classified” employees, are not licensed like teachers and are not under the office’s jurisdiction. This means when paraeducators like Neyers — as well as other noninstructional school staff like attendance clerks, cafeteria workers and custodians — are accused of abuse, it’s up to the school district to investigate the claims.

The biggest punishment that educators investigated by the office can receive is having their licenses revoked, preventing them from teaching in any school, said Erica Hernandez-Scott, executive director of the Washington State Professional Educator Standards Board, a state agency that oversees educator certification policy. Because paraeducators aren’t licensed, however, that isn’t an option. Instead, any consequences or employment termination are the district’s responsibility.

“As it stands right now, there isn’t anything on the books that could revoke a para’s ability to function as a para,” Hernandez-Scott said. She noted the state agency is looking to collaborate with the Office of Professional Practices to create a code of ethics for all adults who work with students, regardless of whether they’re licensed, which would give the office an opening to investigate paraeducators.

“Anytime a child is hurt by an adult that’s supposed to care for them, it does harm to the entire profession,” she said.

The union representing paraeducators in the Tahoma School District, Public School Employees of Washington SEIU Local 1948, also plays a role in protecting paraeducators’ rights when there are accusations of misconduct. The union, which represented Neyers at least twice following complaints, declined to comment.

Kids raise concerns

In the end, it was the district’s children and their parents who alerted police about Neyers.

According to the charges, Neyers began abusing a 5-year-old boy who attended Tahoma Elementary School’s Extended Enrichment Program in 2018 — the same year Neds and Brock separately reported their concerns to the district. Neyers had a friendly relationship with the boy’s family and sometimes drove him home from school when his mom couldn’t pick him up. The student later described to law enforcement how Neyers would sexually abuse him in the car.

Even though Schuster had previously met with Neyers about concerns with him driving students home, the student’s mom, who requested to go by the initials K.C. to avoid identifying her son, said the district never notified her that there had been complaints. “(Neyers) had my permission to drive him home, but I had no idea that there was any history of a problem like this,” she said.

If it hadn’t been for two young brothers telling their dad that Neyers had molested them at the Tahoma School District’s COVID-19 child care center in April 2020, the abuse of her son likely would have continued, K.C. said. After the brothers spoke up, their dad called the police. The next day, a King County Sheriff’s Office detective interviewed Neyers and the two boys, ages 7 and 9, according to court records. Neyers was arrested later that week.

The day after his arrest, a sheriff’s detective conducted a safety interview with K.C.’s son because he had spent one-on-one time with Neyers. The boy, then 7, told the detective nothing inappropriate had happened. But on a bike ride with his mom later that day, he opened up to her about how Neyers would touch him, K.C. said.

“I was just aghast,” she said. “He got very emotionally disturbed talking about this. I could tell there was something more to it.”

Neyers’ attorney declined to comment. Neyers, who is being held in the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent, did not respond to InvestigateWest’s phone and email requests for comment.

The next week, having heard about Neyers’ arrest, another boy accused Neyers of raping him in 2014 while Neyers was still in high school and working as a care provider at the district’s summer enrichment program, court records show.

K.C. said her son still struggles with the impacts of what happened, battling flashbacks and throwing up from stress when he went back to school.

“It just makes my blood boil, to a degree, how they put kids in such an unsafe situation,” she said. “It took a lot of kids to speak up about this to really find out what was going on.”

InvestigateWest (invw.org) is an independent news nonprofit dedicated to investigative journalism in the Pacific Northwest. Reporter Kelsey Turner can be reached at kelsey@invw.org.