Strange High School Hazing Trial Unfolds in Oregon

PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) — A trial over hazing at a public high school in a Portland, Oregon, suburb began Tuesday with defense lawyers accusing the teenage girl’s mother of an incident of peculiar parenting.

Taissa and Ray Achcar-Winkels sued Lake Oswego School District in March 2015, accusing three top administrators, two dance coaches and a volunteer of letting dance team members force their daughter to wrestle on a tarp covered with maple syrup, feathers and oatmeal, and condoning the retribution that followed when she spoke up about what happened.

Lake Oswego, pop. 39,000, south of Portland, had a median household income of $90,041 in 2015, two-thirds higher than the statewide median of $54,148, according to city-data.com. Its median household value of $541,271 was more than twice the statewide median. It is 85 percent white.

The girl says team members subjected her to hazing at three required events: a “team-bonding trip” to the Oregon coast, an overnight “initiation” in Lake Oswego, and a “mandatory boot camp” in Sunriver.

Arguments on Tuesday focused on the team initiation in August 2014, where senior team members organized “activities intended to humiliate, endanger, harass, assault and batter the rest of the team members,” according to the lawsuit.

Seniors forced underclassmen to pull pieces of paper out of a hat, each slip dictating embarrassing behavior they had to perform, such as dance on tables, kiss strange men or yell obscenities in a restaurant. One restaurant called police and filed a complaint.

Team members took the girl’s cellphone, dressed her in a “humiliating costume,” blindfolded her and drove to downtown Lake Oswego.

The same night, the family says, senior team members drove the girl to a field at Lakeridge High School, where the team met with 25 to 30 intoxicated high school students who were there to harass and humiliate her and the other underclassmen.

After being pelted with water balloons, she and her young teammates had to strip down to the bikinis they had been ordered to wear under their clothes and were forced to wrestle on a tarp covered in maple syrup and oatmeal, while the drunk students tossed feathers on them.

The girl and her young teammates “were forced to dance with and for male students,” the lawsuit added.

The hazing continued at the Willamette River, where they were forced into the water and told that if they wanted a ride home they had to chase the seniors’ cars, barefoot, according to the complaint.

Both dance coaches, school principal Jennifer Schiele and the dance team’s public relations volunteer Suzanne Young knew about the hazing did nothing to stop it, the Achcar-Winkels say.

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

On Tuesday, the school district’s attorney Karen Vickers, with Mersereau Shannon, acknowledged that the events in girl’s story were true. But she said the district had an anti-hazing policy and implied that such harassment is a normal part of high school, regardless of the rules set by well-intentioned administrators.

“No one disputes that this happened,” Vickers told the seven-member jury. “We all wish those events had never happened. But they did and we are here. The Lake Oswego School District, like all districts in Oregon, has a policy against hazing and bullying. What this case is really about is the challenges faced by high school students, their parents and school officials.”

Vickers added a strange detail: There was one adult witness on the summer night in 2014 when seven seniors on the dance team forced the team’s freshmen to wrestle on a sticky tarp: the girl’s mother.

Taissa Achcar-Winkels hid in a tree on the edge of the field at Lakeridge High School while the team hazed her daughter, Vickers said. She filmed the event on her cellphone, but later deleted the video, Vickers told the jury.

The girl’s attorney, Leta Gorman with Betts Patterson Mines, told the jury that hazing was nothing new at Lakeridge High.

“This is a case that involves a longstanding tradition of hazing on the Pacer Dance Team and a culture of recrimination for standing up and talking about what happened,” Gorman said. “But Sabrina, who was 14, spoke up about what happened to her.”

And she’s still paying for it, Gorman said. Four years later, classmates call her names like “liar,” “cunt” and “snitch,” Gorman said.

“She’s been told to ‘fucking disappear,’” Gorman said. “She’s been told to kill herself. On Saturday morning, she went out to her car. Written on it in lipstick is ‘fuck you, bitch.’”

While the girl’s teammates might have targeted her for harassment, head dance coach Kayla Nordlum “did not have any ill will against this family” attorney Lucas Reese, with Garrett Hemann, told the jury.

“Teenagers will continue to make mistakes,” Reese said. “Federal court is not the forum for that conversation though.”

Closing arguments are expected Friday.

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