The family of late hazing victim Jordan Preavy has taken their case to the Vermont Supreme Court.
Parties appeared in the state’s highest court on Tuesday morning, where family attorney Robert Appel laid out the reasons justices should reverse a superior court judge’s dismissal of the case and send it to a jury.
“The responsible adults fell asleep at the switch, causing tragic, catastrophic results,” he told the court. “We believe that the trial court erred in not giving benefit of the doubt to our claims.”
The Preavy family sued the Milton Town School District for negligence in 2015, arguing the district knew of the unseemly behavior on the football team and should have taken action to prevent further incidents.
Jordan was sodomized with a broomstick at a team function on school grounds in 2011. He died by suicide a year later, and in 2013, the case came to light. Five former players were handed down punishments by the criminal court.
Since then, Jordan’s estate and another hazing victim have sued the school district for nearly identical claims. Last fall, a superior court judge dismissed the Preavy case, concluding the family didn’t present enough evidence to support its claims.
School district attorney Pietro Lynn argued similar points on Tuesday, telling justices Vermont law doesn’t require school leaders to provide immediate supervision at all times. He cited case law supporting MTSD’s position that it had no actual notice of the assault until after Jordan died.
But Justice Beth Robinson poked holes in that argument, saying this wasn’t a random assault, and the school district didn’t exercise a reasonable standard of care.
“They didn’t even comply with their own written policy,” she said. “If they had complied with the standard of care, it wouldn’t have happened. You’re sort of arguing against an orange with an apple.”
Lynn disagreed, saying the team addressed instances of verbal harassment in 2009, and things were quiet until 2013. Appel, however, pointed to depositions given to the Chittenden Unit for Special Investigations officers, which document students knowing to “watch out for the broomstick” after 2009, he said.
Appel further argued the team’s then-locker room – the freestanding blockhouse adjacent to the field – afforded no supervision, perpetuating the reputation that actions won’t be noticed or punished. This allowed the behavior to escalate from the no-homo game to assaults, Appel said.
“The potential for bad things to happen in an unsupervised setting at that age group is well known,” he said.
Lynn told the court there’s no proof school administrators knew of the hazing and did nothing. Rather, the victims didn’t report it even though Milton has established policies and procedures in cases of hazing, harassment and bullying.
But Justice Robinson argued policies aren’t everything – they require training and context.
“You have to create a culture in which this kind of assault can’t happen in the middle of a football field with other players around and nobody doing anything about it, because they understand it’s not OK,” she said.
The 30-minute hearing closed without a decision from the court. It could be months before the justices issue a decision.
The other negligence case is set for a motion hearing in Vt. Superior Court in June.