JONESBOROUGH, Tenn. (WJHL) – Washington County school officials denied a David Crockett High School student due process following a 2015 hazing incident at a football camp, a federal judge has ruled. The student had sued the school system and the Washington County Board of Education.
The school system was ordered to pay part of the students’ attorney fees and remove all references to his school suspensions from his permanent record. Judge Cynthia Wyrick denied the plaintiff’s request for monetary damages in her May 13 ruling save for a nominal $1 award.
“What most concerns the Court was the “rubber-stamping” of Principal Wright’s (then first-year Crockett principal Peggy Wright) recommendation by the disciplinary committee and the school board’s subsequent rubberstamping of the disciplinary committee’s findings,” Wyrick wrote in a 57-page opinion.
The case stemmed from several upperclassmen’s hazing of at least two freshman football players during a Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) camp July 14-16, 2015. It drew widespread media attention based on details that included upperclassman allegedly “hitting” freshman “initiates” in the foreheads with their genitals.
The plaintiff, then a sophomore, was among four students suspended after the hazing incident came to light through anonymous emails sent to school officials and others. Referred to as John Doe in the lawsuit, he later claimed he had been hazed in the same manner earlier during the camp and then been told to hold the feet of one freshman who tried to leave the room where the incidents occurred.
Like the other students who were punished, Doe was given a 10-day suspension that was extended in early August to one year by an administrative disciplinary board, to be served in alternative school. The students also got kicked off the football team for that year.
Doe alleged that “the manner in which Defendant conducted the disciplinary process violated his due process rights and that he received an unreasonably harsh punishment because he was treated in the same manner as the other three students who participated in the hazing event despite having played a diminished role,” according to Wyrick’s opinion.
Richard Phillips represented Doe and said his family was satisfied with the ruling. While it would have “been nice to have some monetary damages,” Phillips said, the judge ruled that Doe “has failed to prove with sufficient specificity how he was impacted (sufficiently to award monetary damages) by Defendant’s failure to provide him with due process.”
Wyrick added, though, that “it is clear that he was in fact impacted by this deprivation.”
Phillips, who has represented the family since they initially filed suit in Chancery Court in 2016, said: “Their ultimate goal the entire time … was to put a spotlight on the ways that the school had wronged the plaintiff in this case.”
Due process includes “notice” and an “opportunity to be heard,” Phillips said. From the principal and the attendance supervisor up through other central office figures and straight to the school board, he said, “they messed up on both of those. They never told him what he was accused of having done.”
While he was unsure of any reason for that, Phillips said it could have related to the nature of the details, which were somewhat graphic.
“I think that that kind of shrouded their vision a little bit. I think that they wanted to get through it, get it done, get it in a box and get it off the desk. And go on.”
The due process issue
The first punishment was levied in August. Sometime after that, Doe told his father that he had been “initiated” prior to the incident in which he aided the other players involved in the hazing. What followed were a series of efforts to get the punishment reduced, none of which succeeded.
His father tried to attend a disciplinary board hearing but didn’t make it due to mixups over time, which he claimed stemmed from miscommunication from the school system. He asked for a closed meeting during a Sept. 3, 2015 school board meeting to discuss the matter, which the school board declined.
The school board again considered an appeal at its February 2016 meeting and upheld the suspension based on written evidence presented to it, but no oral testimony was permitted because the law didn’t require it.
Doe transferred to Elizabethton High School early that year rather than spend a year in the small alternative school with the other players. He later graduated from Elizabethton and Phillips said he is “doing well” as a young adult.
In her opinion Wyrick detailed a litany of examples in which school board members, central office administration and others failed at several steps to afford Doe his due process rights.
The opinion, partly based on a bench trial that occurred in December 2019 and January 2020, says in various ways, the actions of Wright, then-Superintendent Ron Dykes, administrators James Murphy, Bill Flanary and Susan Kiernan, and school board members all failed in various ways to measure up to due process requirements.
Among those failures, Wyrick noted:
- “While Principal Wright testified that she was confident Plaintiff knew what he was accused of doing, she also testified that she could not remember what she told Plaintiff about the allegations against him.”
- (School board member David) “Mr. Hammond admitted that Plaintiff could not have presented any information that would have caused him to disapprove of Principal Wright’s recommended punishment…”
In essence, the defendants didn’t ever specifically notify Doe of what he was charged with, nor did they afford him a fair opportunity to state his case. Wyrick wrote that had they done so, Doe still may have been given the same punishment as the other students without his due process rights being violated.
“Despite the finding of multiple due process violations, it should be noted all such issues could have easily been remedied had the school board simply provided Plaintiff with a full and fair closed hearing,” she wrote. “While Defendant correctly notes that the school board was not obligated by law to provide such a hearing because it was not increasing the punishment handed down by the disciplinary board, given the circumstances it would have been the prudent thing to do and likely would have allowed Defendant to avoid the lawsuit at issue altogether.”
Impact of the past, opportunity for the future
Phillips said he sensed “a very, very present indignance throughout these proceedings — at the depositions, in court.” He said the defendants generally seemed sure they “did what (they) were supposed to do.”
He said he hopes the results of this case will convince them otherwise.
“I think now that it is a 57-page United States District Court opinion I don’t think there’s any more ignoring it at this point. I think that they’re going to have to look at it. And I think that they – I can’t imagine that they wouldn’t make some changes.”
The attorney who represented the board of education, Erick Herrin, released a statement suggesting the system is indeed taking the question of due process seriously.
“This is a case about taking responsibility,” the statement reads. ” The school system accepts its responsibility for undertaking improvements to its due process procedures.
“The more significant remaining issue involves the young student-athletes who were victims of the hazing who are still deserving of an apology from their abusers. We hope all the students involved have managed to move forward from this unfortunate and egregious event.”
Phillips said he believes that could best start through a focus on people as much as paperwork.
“They’ve got these sheets that say due process at the top, and ‘ok, well there’s our due process.’ They need to take the focus maybe away from the forms and back towards the people a little bit, back towards the students.”
As for the plaintiff, Phillips said he definitely believes he suffered emotionally — both from the experience over his punishment and because of what he thinks was a culture on the football team.
“I don’t think it can be overstated,” he said of the emotional impact during the appeal process.
“The idea that nothing you do, nothing you can do is going to stop the system from running over you is a crippling helpless feeling that can lead to depression, anxiety, PTSD.”
Doe had been a starter on both offense and defense as a freshman and was finding football to be a great area of success for him. He passed in the classroom but did not excel; his friends on the team and skill helped his self-esteem, Phillips said and Wyrick wrote.
Wyrick wrote that then-coach Jeremy Bosken stated one of the leaders of the hazing, Jordan Way, had been assigned as a mentor to Doe. Phillips said he believes that’s the type of environment that could lead an impressionable younger player to do unwise things to impress someone he looked up to.
“They literally said, ‘you look at this guy and you do what he says and you do what he does and you’ll be alright.’ And so when the coaching staff tells you that and this is potentially your one vehicle to greatness – I would hate to have been in that situation myself.”