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Illicit CP - May 2000

Corpun file 5731

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 18 May 2000

District settles suit over disciplining football players

Stevens Point schools to pay $7,000 but won't apologize

By Kevin Murphy
Special to the Journal Sentinel

Madison - A federal lawsuit filed against the Stevens Point School District on behalf of five football players who were suspended for two games for a hazing incident was settled out of court Wednesday for about $7,000.

But the families involved did not get the apology they were seeking from school officials, their attorney said.

The suit, filed in November in U.S. District Court in Madison, alleged that the district violated its own athletic code when the superintendent ignored the athletic director's recommendation for disciplining the students.

"It told the kids to 'do as I say, but not as I do,'" said Russell Golla, the attorney for the families. "They didn't want to see a local government playing roughshod over kids accused of wrongdoing."

The players, Kevin Fitzgerald, Josh Hall, Robb Kolodziej, Tony Gischia and Ben Bolton, admitted paddling the buttocks of several sophomores with a wooden paddle during an Aug. 12 party attended by up to 200 students, Golla said.

Although other students took part in the paddling, only the football players were disciplined, Golla said, which added to the families' distress.

Superintendent Emery Babcock ignored the athletic director's recommendation of community service for the players and instead suspended them for two games, a decision that was upheld by the School Board. That prompted the parents to go to federal court.

"They were upset by the punishment but they were equally upset by the process," Golla said. "These kids were singled out, and the manner from which the punishment resulted taught the kids that governments which have the power to do things right, don't always do the right thing."

Even the parents of the paddled students wanted the players to perform community service instead of serving the suspension, according to court documents.

Normally, the school district's Athletic Code Council, which is composed of the athletic director, a coach and school administrators, reviews the athletic director's disciplinary decision.

Babcock said Wednesday that he was within his right to directly take over investigation of the hazing matter because the council's neutrality had been compromised after members were contacted by the players' parents.

After a private investigator looked into the hazing, the School Board concluded it was a serious incidence of unsportsmanlike conduct punishable by a suspension under the athletic code. The students were not suspended from classes.

"They still had the right to appeal to the School Board, which is the final decision maker, so I think they were just trying to embarrass the administration with this suit," Babcock said.

The district's insurance company decided to settle the case for a nominal sum instead of risking a larger damage award at trial, Babcock said.

All of the suspended players were starters and two were team captains. Missing out on 20% of the regular season was "devastating" to the students, who had worked for years to accomplish what they did on the football field, Golla said.

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