Oregon School Hazing Case Goes to Jury

PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) – At a high school in an affluent suburb, sports team “initiations” were the norm. Now, a federal jury is deciding whether the school’s dance team initiations amounted to hazing. And whether coaches and administrators are responsible.

Taissa and Ray Achcar-Winkels sued Lake Oswego School District in March 2015, accusing three top administrators, two dance coaches and a volunteer of condoning the hazing of their freshman daughter and the retribution that followed when she reported it.

The girl said she was pushed off the dance team and hounded by her classmates after she complained about a school-sanctioned initiation where seniors on the dance team forced freshmen to wrestle in bikinis on a tarp covered in syrup and oatmeal while tossing feathers on the girls. Upperclassmen also made new team members wade into the Willamette River and forced them to perform embarrassing acts at restaurants in the suburb like kissing strange men, dancing on tables, or yelling obscenities, the girl claimed. One restaurant called police and filed a complaint.

U.S. District Judge Michael Mosman refused to dismiss the case in September 2015.

But what happened when the girl reported the incidents was even worse, her lawyer told the jury in closing arguments on Friday. Four years later, the girl’s classmates still call her names like “liar,” “cunt” and “snitch,” her lawyer said.

Hazing, and the mandatory secrecy surrounding it, was a normal occurrence at Lakeridge High School, Leta Gorman with Betts Patterson Mines told the jury.

“The hazing is just one aspect of this case,” Gorman said. “This case is about a culture that breeds fear of recrimination for speaking up.”

The Lake Oswego School District didn’t dispute that the hazing occurred. But it says it wasn’t responsible. Kids will be kids, according to the lawyer for the district and Lakeridge administrators. Karen Vickers, with Mersereau Shannon, told the jury that the school did what it could to protect the girl.

“This case is really about an unfortunate night where some high school kids did some stuff that they probably shouldn’t have,” Vickers said. “And none of those kids are here today. The adults tried to respond reasonably to a really tough situation.”

Vickers argued that the girl hadn’t suffered enough to warrant monetary damages. To Vickers, the girl’s resilience seemed to be a liability in proving her claims.

“[She] successfully found other activities, like tennis and ski club,” Vickers said. “She made other friends. She had the opportunity to travel.”

Over the course of the four-day trial, defense attorneys tried to show that the girl’s mother exaggerated the degradation her daughter had suffered and sued out of a personal vendetta against school administrators.

Lawyers said Taissa Achcar-Winkels hid in a tree and filmed the hazing ritual on her cellphone. She later deleted the video and explained the incident to the jury by saying she was afraid for her daughter’s safety. She claimed a former member of the dance team, who had since graduated from Lakeridge, had told her “the girls were going to be terrorized.”

The family’s lawyer told the jury that the girl was the one who was driving the case, not her mother.

“This lawsuit isn’t about Lake Oswego moms,” Gorman said. “It’s about [the girl] wanting to make a point that this shouldn’t be allowed. This administration had an obligation to educate students to prevent hazing and cyberbullying. It continues to this day. It has to stop.”

Gorman implored the jury to side with her clients, and to do it quickly.

“Sabrina has to walk to school on Monday,” Gorman said. “She has to walk the halls. I would ask that you give her a verdict to stand on.”

The jury was still deliberating at press time on Friday.

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