Law & Ethics:

The mother of a North Hardin High School (Ky.) cheerleader has filed a lawsuit against several school officials, claiming her daughter was physically assaulted and humiliated during a cheerleading camp last July.

The teen’s mother filed the lawsuit, which names cheerleading coaches Dawn Wheeler and Kristy Frills, assistant cheerleading coach Ed Wheeler, Athletic Director William Dennison, and Principal Eric Vowels, said Willie Neal, the family’s attorney.

The lawsuit claims that during the camp, which was held at the University of Kentucky, the girl was dragged from her bed, had a dirty sock placed in her mouth to keep her from calling for help, and was put in a cold shower for an extended period of time.

The coaches were in charge of the cheerleaders at the camp. The student says she told Vowels and Dennison about the alleged assault and that they “did engage in a conspiracy with the other defendants involved in the hazing of the [teen] by covering up the incident and otherwise ignoring that it happened.”

The lawsuit asks for an unspecified amount of punitive damages.

A snapshot shows the girl tied to a chair with tape around her ankles and legs and the word “newcomer” written across her forehead, Neal said. In the picture, the girl is crying and holding a sign reading, “Go Big Blue.”

Neal said about 16 cheerleaders witnessed or participated in the assault. The girl is now undergoing counseling, taking medication as a result of the alleged event, and has nightmares about the mistreatment, he said.

“I don’t think you can put a price tag on what this girl has suffered,” Neal said. “As far as I’m concerned, no amount of money would be enough to compensate her for what she’s gone through.”

Vowels declined comment on the suit, while Dennison and the coaches could not be reached for comment.

Hardin County Schools Superintendent Lois Gray told The News-Enterprise of Elizabethtown that she was unaware of the cheerleader’s complaint or the lawsuit. Gray could not be reached for further comment.

At least two parents of other cheerleaders who were at the camp confirmed to the newspaper that hazing did occur. The mothers asked that their names be withheld to protect the identities of their daughters.

“I don’t think the coaches took it as seriously as they should have because they didn’t know the severity of what they allowed to happen,” one mother told the newspaper. “I don’t think the cheerleaders knew [the teen] was suffering.”

Some school districts don’t outlaw hazing, but other rules discourage the practice.

Ruth Sorace, the interim principal at Elizabethtown High School who coached cheerleaders for 20 years in the Elizabethtown Independent Schools, said the district does not have clear-cut rules against hazing.

But, as with all school-related activities and events, students are required to obey district policies against harassment, Sorace said.

“To my knowledge, we’ve never had a hazing on any grade level. I do believe I would have heard or found out,” Sorace said.

When asked to comment on the case, David Splitt, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney and an expert on school law, said, “This is really a simple assault case, and there is no difference in the standards from any other case of one (or a group of) students assaulting another student. If school officials find out about it, they have a duty to stop it.

“Even if a school district doesn’t have a policy that specifically outlaws hazing, most (if not all) have rules against students assaulting other students,” he continued. “That is all that is needed, since this type of ‘hazing’ is just a euphemism for assault, which is why the lawyers used that term in their complaint.”

Montana school district not negligent in playground accident

The Great Falls School District in Montana is not responsible for injuries suffered by a special-education student in a playground accident more than four years ago, the Montana Supreme Court said Feb. 1.

The unanimous ruling by a five-judge panel upheld a District Court jury verdict against the parents of Kim Morgan, who was nine years old at the time of the accident.

Jurors had enough evidence to side with the school district and the court should not second-guess the jurors’ decision on whether to believe the testimony of the only person to see the child fall to the ground, the justices said.

Kim Morgan, who suffered from mental retardation as a result of a brain disease and was prone to seizures, had returned to school in November 1995 after undergoing brain surgery.

She was playing in the schoolyard at Sacajawea Elementary along with 10 other special education students under the supervision of two adults, Patricia Richard and Carrie Holden.

Richard, a special education assistant at the school, spotted the girl on a piece of playground equipment that had a platform several feet off the ground and a metal pole for children to slide down. She saw the child partly slide down the pole before letting go about two or three off the ground.

Morgan broke her leg in the fall.

Her parents, David and Theresa Morgan, sued the school district and claimed that Richard had been negligent in supervising their daughter on the playground.

Richard testified she never saw the child climb onto the raised platform and never noticed her until she was sliding down the pole. She said she knew that special education students were not supposed to play on that piece of equipment and did not allow Morgan to climb up.

Richard said she was busy trying to keep an eye on all the special education students on the playground, including some with profound disabilities.

Based on that testimony, the Supreme Court said, jurors had sufficient evidence to reach the verdict they did.

Although Richard had a legal responsibility to closely watch Kim Morgan, the fact that she never noticed the child climb onto the platform and start sliding down the pole does not automatically mean Richard failed to meet that obligation, Justice Terry Trieweiler wrote for the court.

“The determination of whether Patty Richard acted reasonably was a question properly submitted to the jury, which was in the best position to evaluate the weight of the evidence,” he said.n

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