Parents file lawsuit against Milton school after bullied son takes his own life
MILTON — A day before the third anniversary of their son’s death, the Preavy family filed a civil lawsuit against Milton School District for failing to protect him from harassment on the football team, the family attorney confirmed last week.
Obtained exclusively by the Milton Independent, the complaint was filed Aug. 27 on behalf of the late Jordan Preavy, one of three confirmed victims of sexual assault and hazing between 2011-12.
In this complaint, Jordan’s parents, Tracy Stopford and Sean Preavy, link his 2012 suicide to the incident.
The five parties named in the suit — the district, high school and school board as well as Superintendent John Barone and Principal Anne Blake in their professional capacities — have not been served the document, so it’s not yet public in Vermont Superior Court, the Preavys’ attorney, Robert Appel, confirmed.
Early last week, school district attorney Joe Farnham said he’s read a filing but would not confirm its contents or comment much further, citing pending litigation.
The 17-page complaint seeks to establish an ongoing pattern of the district’s negligence in addressing hazing and harassment on the Milton High School football team starting in 2009, even before the timeframe investigated by police that resulted in five former players taking plea deals in criminal court.
“They knew or should have known and should have paid closer attention to this conduct,” Appel said. “It sounds like it continued without interruption.”
Appel, previously director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission for 11 years, argues if the district had stopped these inappropriate behaviors sooner, it could have prevented not only Jordan’s assault but his subsequent suicide a year later.
Jordan was 17 then; last month, he would have turned 20.
The Preavys seek damages for pain and suffering, emotional distress, loss of dignity and attorney fees and request a trial by jury.
The lawsuit identifies three causes of action: first, that the defendants violated the Vermont Fair Housing and Public Accommodations Act because Jordan was harassed based on his perceived sexual orientation, the filing reads.
The act requires schools protect students from discrimination and afford equal access to education, but this wasn’t possible for Jordan, Appel argues, since players were routinely exposed to homophobic slurs, harassment and hazing on the team.
To show this, the complaint quotes documents from 2009, when the district placed the football team on probation for “inappropriate conversations and behaviors,” collectively referred to as the “no homo[sexual] game,” the complaint reads.
These actions ranged from verbal harassment and flaunting genitalia to involuntary anal penetration with both fingers and foreign objects at the unsupervised blockhouse adjacent to the playing field, the complaint says.
Redacted police documents also suggest players were subjected to forceful, open handed slaps while undressed and allegedly engaged in oral sex as part of the hazing ritual, the complaint says. The reports indicate this behavior was common knowledge on the team and beyond.
MHS held a meeting about the no homo game in November 2009, though it was discovered the rituals continued without coaches Chris Hughes, Drew Gordon or Craig Sleeman’s knowledge, the complaint reads.
In fall 2010, the team was placed on “behavioral probation” for the season, which Hughes and then-athletic director Joe Solomon threatened to cancel if the misconduct didn’t cease, the complaint says, based on district documents the plaintiffs obtained.
Both of Jordan’s perpetrators, Brandon Beliveau and Ryan Carlson, were on the team when it was placed on probation, making it “reasonable that the defendants could foresee their future harmful and destructive acts,” the complaint says.
This led not only to Jordan’s suicide, the complaint alleges, but also to another student bringing an unloaded firearm to school in November 2012.
“They had a duty to continue to monitor what was going on,” Appel said.
LACK OF VIGILANCE
This lack of vigilance amounts to negligence, the complaint’s second cause of action, the filing reads.
Blake and Barone didn’t report to authorities, despite having actual and reasonable knowledge of the prior misconduct, it says.
The district also failed to train coaches despite known supervision issues and maintain a compliant harassment policy. Doing so left Jordan and his teammates vulnerable to conceivable harm from the “toxic, abusive, unlawful conduct” on the team, the filing reads.
This “deliberate indifference” ultimately gave rise to the third cause of action, loss of parental consortium, or the Preavys’ right to be parents to their son, causing them “immense emotional harm” and financial loss, the complaint says.
Appel noted the suit only examines incidents during Jordan’s lifetime, so it notably doesn’t include allegations that Blake questioned another victim about the misconduct, threatening to shut the program down if it were true. Feeling pressure, the boy said it wasn’t, police affidavits have said.
The school board-hired investigator Dan Troidl did use this incident among others to conclude in his 104-page report released last month that administrators didn’t comply with their own policies.
Given this, Appel said, “from a taxpayer perspective or best practice, the whole five years — that’s a pretty ugly pattern, in my humble opinion.”
Following the release of the Troidl report, the board put Barone on three weeks paid administrative leave, which expired this Thursday. The board extended Barone’s administrative leave for four more weeks.
For his part, Appel lauded his clients’ bravery since last summer, the first time they learned Jordan was a victim.
Since then, the Preavys have transitioned from victims to advocates. Beyond attending every court hearing for their son’s perpetrators, the Preavys have also lobbied successfully to strengthen the mandatory reporting law.
“I’m really struck by their strength, their commitment that Jordan shall not have died in vain and that positive things will come out of this tragedy,” Appel said. “They’re not wallowing in self-pity. They’re making the best of this to protect other kids in similar circumstances and make school safer for everybody, which is hopefully a shared objective by all of us.”
Once the suit is officially served on the defendants, they’ll have 20 days to file an answer with the court, Appel said.