A lawsuit accusing school officials of failing to protect a former Essex High School student from bullying, hazing and assault by a hockey teammate in 2015 may soon head to trial, after a judge denied the district’s motion to dismiss the case over a lack of evidence.
Parents of the victim filed the lawsuit in 2017 on his behalf; to protect his identity, The Reporter is withholding the names of the plaintiffs. The suit names Union No. 46, its school board and the Chittenden Central Supervisory Union as defendants. Those entities dissolved in July 2017 and are now governed by the Essex Westford School District.
The suit alleges negligence by school and district leaders who “knew or should have known” members of the hockey team were targeting the victim during his freshman year. The district has denied any wrongdoing, arguing it had no reason to suspect the behavior and claiming it investigated as soon as it heard about the incidents.
Pietro Lynn, the district’s attorney, told The Reporter last year he planned to file for summary judgment “at the appropriate time” and expected the suit would be dismissed.
This summer, Lynn asked a superior court judge to find that the plaintiff lacked evidence to bring the case before a jury. But last month, judge Helen M. Toor denied the motion, ruling that if the plaintiffs’ facts prove to be true, a jury could potentially rule in their favor.
Jerome O’Neill, the plaintiffs’ attorney, called Toor’s ruling an “important decision” and said the case will now head to trial. The court has yet to set a date.
The victim joined the boys hockey team in the fall of 2015, and over the next several months experienced behaviors ranging from verbal put-downs and unfair treatment to physical assaults and sexual harassment by a teammate, court records show.
In December 2015, the victim texted one of the student captains, explaining the team’s sophomores, with one in particular, were mistreating him: taking his belongings, slapping him, trying to make him buy them things, threatening to break his bones and “rub[bing] their balls and shov[ing] their hands” in his face, court records show.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs have also said the main perpetrator exposed himself to the victim, repeatedly punched him, damaged his property and urinated on him, among other inappropriate behaviors.
School officials started an investigation in February 2016 after educators from another high school shared concerns about the team. Both the high school’s internal investigation and a subsequent independent review found the victim’s claims were credible, concluding the main perpetrator had violated school policies on bullying, hazing, harassment and retaliation.
A criminal investigation into the student’s behavior was forwarded to then-State’s Attorney TJ Donovan in March 2016. He referred the case to family court, where proceedings are confidential.
The plaintiffs have brought two claims against the district: That administrators failed to properly supervise the hockey team, and then failed to investigate in a timely manner once it heard about the abuse, allowing it to continue.
At the hearts of the claims is a question of when the district learned about the incidents. Vermont law limits the responsibilities of school districts, stating they don’t owe immediate supervision at all times but rather must protect students from foreseeable risks.
The district argues it had no notice of the conduct prior to February 2016, when it took swift action. But the plaintiffs allege the high school knew about the misconduct three months earlier, when the victim texted a team captain, who allegedly informed the team’s head coach at the time, Bill O’Neil. The district refutes this meeting ever took place and says the team captain has also denied it.
Judge Toor notes while the issue of timing is “hotly contested,” she must take the disputed facts “in the light most favorable” to the plaintiffs when ruling on summary judgments.
If the case reaches trial, the two sides will debate whether team captains can be considered agents of the school.
The plaintiffs say even if they can’t prove O’Neil was told about the conduct, the victim’s texts to the captain were enough to put the school on notice. That’s because the district deployed its captains as proxy coaches: Captains scheduled and led practices in the weeks leading up to the season that were school-sanctioned but unsupervised, the plaintiffs say.
Further, the plaintiffs argue the high school conducted a workshop on hazing and bullying for the entire team in November 2015, during which the coach said if there were any issues, players should approach the captains first.
“The boys ice hockey team captains in effect were the eyes and ears of the coaches,” wrote the plaintiff’s attorney in court filings. The district has refuted these characterizations.
The judge’s ruling came a month after she handed down a similar decision in another hazing lawsuit out of Milton that features attorneys from the Essex case.
The Milton victim was at a team dinner in 2012 when two teammates dragged him to the basement, pushed him onto a couch and forcibly inserted a pool cue into his rectum, over his clothing, the lawsuit says. The Milton Town School District argued it handled the situation correctly and moved to dismiss the suit this summer.
That case heads to trial this November.