with additional reporting by COLIN FLANDERS
Milton Town School District must release records for students who played high school football between 2009-12, a Vermont Superior Court judge ruled late last month.
Judge Robert A. Mello’s order is the latest in the hazing lawsuit filed by the plaintiff, who was sodomized with a pool cue at a teammate’s home in 2012. He sued MTSD for negligence last May.
The Milton Independent does not name victims of sexual assault without their permission.
Attorneys for the plaintiff had sought records dating back to 2000 to establish the district’s “culture of sexual assault,” a request Mello deemed “too broad in scope” in his July 26 ruling.
Mello ordered the relevant records must be redacted and placed under a protective order.
The plaintiff’s attorney, Jerome O’Neill of Gravel & Shea, was disappointed in the ruling and wasn’t sure how it will affect its negligence claim against the school district.
“We don’t know what we’re not getting,” he said last week. “We think that we should have been receiving all information going back to 2000, but we don’t know what’s there because we’re not getting it.”
The plaintiff had sought records specific to Jamie Rugg, a former Milton High School athletic director who was convicted in 2003 of sexually assaulting a Milton student, and to Chris Hughes, who was investigated by the county sex crimes police unit in 2005 but was never charged.
Mello wrote these situations have no bearing on the plaintiff’s case.
“Moreover, Vermont law imposes no duty to protect teenage students from general ‘cultural’ risks,” he wrote.
Ten former Milton Yellowjackets filed motions to quash the subpoenas, including one of the plaintiff’s assailants, Brian Lasell. He and Colby Darling accepted plea deals for simple assault in criminal court in December 2014 after a police investigation into conduct on the MHS football team from 2011-12.
Mello’s ruling narrows the plaintiff’s request to the years Lasell, Darling and the three other perpetrators attended MHS, which began in 2009, saying anything before then is “highly unlikely to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence.”
MTSD’s attorney, Pietro Lynn of Lynn Lynn Blackman & Manitsky, said the ruling strikes the appropriate balance between student privacy and evidence discovery. He said the district had already offered to procure these redacted records and would only black out identifying information.
“It is a very reasonable resolution,” he said.
The ruling has already become legal precedent. Four days after Mello issued this order, he ruled on a nearly identical hazing lawsuit from Essex High School, in which the plaintiff’s parents sought student records over a six-year period starting in 2010, five years before their son joined the team.
Arguing for the extended timeframe, the plaintiffs’ lawyers described hazing as a tradition; they said the school district’s knowledge of prior events warranted increased supervision, regardless of whether the acts occurred a day or a decade before the victim’s abuse.
Mello’s ruling called the request too broad and cited the Milton case extensively.
O’Neill said his legal team will move forward with depositions. He expects the defense will file a motion for summary judgment, essentially asking the judge to toss the case and avoid trial.
“We will defeat [that],” O’Neill said, noting he expects the court to set a trial date for next year.
Lynn said he will file that motion but not until the Vermont Supreme Court rules on the Preavy case, filed by the family of the late Jordan Preavy in 2015. It alleges Milton was negligent in supervising students and failed to protect their son from hazing and harassment.
The same judge, Mello, dismissed that case last September, and the Preavys appealed to the Supreme Court. Justices heard arguments in April but have not yet issued a ruling.
“We wouldn’t file a [motion for summary judgment] only to have the Supreme Court potentially change the law,” Lynn said of the present case. “It’s prudent for the defense to wait for its decision, assuming one comes relatively soon.”
In April, the Preavys’ attorney, Robert Appel, said that could take months.