BURLINGTON — On Friday a jury awarded $280,000 to a former Milton High School student who was the victim of sexual assault by his football teammates in 2012.
The former student, now 21, had sought $2.5 million.
The school’s attorney, Pietro Lynn, has indicated the district will not appeal the decision.
The jury ultimately concluded the school had been negligent in not anticipating an assault such as the one on the plaintiff could occur. The jury initially found that the school had not been negligent, but had nonetheless awarded damages to the plaintiff. After Judge Helen Toor explained that damages could only be awarded if the school was negligent, the jury returned to the jury room and concluded the school had been negligent.
The victim, a freshman at the time, was at a team dinner at a home in Milton 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 Independent does not name victims of sexual assault without their consent.
In 2013, a year after the assault, the plaintiff and another teammate were called into Milton High School principal Anne Blake’s office to discuss rumors about an initiation ritual involving broomsticks — a meeting Blake told the victim that his parents didn’t need to attend, the suit says.
Blake told the plaintiff if the allegations were true, she’d have to shut down the football program. Fearing retaliation from his peers, the plaintiff denied anything happened, the complaint says. Blake then directed the plaintiff to tell incoming freshmen there was no truth to the rumors.
It wasn’t until spring 2014 that a parent called the Vt. Department for Children and Families after their child heard the plaintiff being taunted for getting “a pool stick shoved up [his] ass,” the filing says. The Chittenden Unit for Special Investigations subsequently opened an investigation and later charged the victim’s attackers – Colby Darling and Brian Lasell – who served 18-month deferred sentences for simple assault.
Following a similar assault by members of the football team in 2011, another Milton High School student, Jordan Preavy, committed suicide.
The victim argued that because the school knew about the assault on Preavy it should have taken steps to protect other students on the football team and investigated more thoroughly when it learned of the assault on the plaintiff.
Vermont law says school districts owe students a duty of “ordinary care,” limiting districts’ responsibilities by stating that they don’t owe students immediate supervision at all times, but rather must protect them from foreseeable risks.
The protection proved enough to sink the Preavy lawsuit, a result the district had hoped would carry over into the second suit because the two cases are “factually indistinguishable.”
However, the plaintiff maintained that because of what had happened to Preavy, as well as other incidents of harassment by the football team, what happened to the plaintiff was forseeable and, thus, the school had a duty to protect the plaintiff. The jury agreed.
The jury rejected the suit’s second claim, which was brought under the Vermont Public Accommodations Act (VPAA). The act requires school districts to promptly investigate harassment allegations and maintain policies that say how investigations will take place.
VPAA harassment claims can only succeed if plaintiffs exhaust their “administrative remedies,” and both parties agree that the victim did not file a complaint under the district’s harassment policy. But the VPAA offers five exemptions to that rule, covering cases in which school districts fail to investigate in a timely manner, or cases where victims believe their efforts to seek remedies through a formal process will be futile.
The plaintiff had argued that because of the known history with the football team, the school should have investigated rumors more quickly and that when the plaintiff denied the assault it was because Blake had placed him in the position of being responsible for the closure of the football team should he say the assault occurred. The jury disagreed.
Asked about how the school district has changed its approach to such incidents in the years since the assaults on Preavy and the plaintiff, as well as efforts to improve the school’s culture and climate, superintendent Amy Rex said significant changes have taken place “not just in this school, but in every school I’ve ever worked in.”
Each year, administrators receive four to six hours of training on how to investigate bullying and harassment along with updates on the law surrounding them, she said.
There are staff at each Milton school dedicated to addressing bullying and harassment, including conducting investigations of complaints. That helps ensure that investigations are conducted the same way throughout the district, said Rex.
With greater understanding of bullying and harassment, we are “able to be much more preventative,” said Rex, “talking to students, helping students and parents understand policies and procedures.”
The school has also adopted restorative justice practices in all of its schools. Currently, the school is focused on the first tier in that process “building community and ensuring everyone feels like the belong,” said Rex.
Rex was not at Milton at the time of the assaults.
“It’s a tragedy for everybody,” she said. “We can always move forward with compassion and forgiveness and continue to support each other.”