Parents sue West Brook for slander, civil rights violations over game controversy

By David Yates | Oct 3, 2007

A former West Brook High School student claims to have been forced to withdraw from school after administrators blamed the student for participating in a controversial game that was played after school hours and away from school property.

Because of the humiliation, damage to the student's reputation and the alleged coercion the student endured, the student's parents have filed suit against the administrators and the Beaumont Independent School District. The suit charges former West Brook Principal Rodney Cavness, Assistant Principal Veronica Durden and BISD with slander, libel, defamation and civil rights violations.

The parents, identified only as TK and JK, filed their suit in the Jefferson County District Court on Oct. 2, claiming the two West Brook High administrators worked with the Beaumont Police Department to detain their child.

Because of a court order and the fact that the plaintiff is a minor, the name, age, class and gender of the student are not disclosed.

According to the plaintiffs' original petition, sometime in October 2006, the student was driving his/her vehicle around town with some friends, after school hours and away from school property, when one of the vehicle's passengers allegedly whipped out an air-soft toy gun and shot at a pedestrian.

The game, known as "Assassination," involves tracking and shooting schoolmates with an air-soft gun to eliminate them from the game.

The student claims not to have been aware that the passenger was going to shoot the toy gun, did not intend to be involved in the game and did not partake in the incident.

The plaintiffs say that school staff had known about West Brook and other high school students playing "Assassination" long before the incident in question.

When Cavness found out about the incident, he allegedly began to grill the student for information, the suit said.

"Defendant Cavness, under color of state law, cooperated with the Beaumont Police Department to 'investigate' the claim by using coercion, duress, solitary confinement within a school room, wrongful search and seizure of Minor Plaintiff's vehicle, (and) threats of physical violence…," the suit said.

The suit claims Cavness never told the student about his/her rights and did not notify the student's parents.

"During the course of events, Defendant made undue defamatory statements about Minor Plaintiff, further complicating matters and damaging Plaintiffs," the suit said. "After coercing a 'confession,' which was really nothing of the sort, Defendants, especially Cavness, began a public 'investigation' into how the matter should be resolved and how Minor Plaintiff should be punished for his/her alleged involvement," the suit states.

The parents allege that Cavness contacted other adults about the incident and accused the student of committing felony criminal acts. The suit says "the accusations were false and groundless."

Acting in the capacity as private individuals and BISD employees, the parents allege that Cavness and Durden continued to make unfounded assertions to other parents and teachers.

"All Defendants knew that the allegations were not true or, were made in reckless disregard to the truth or falsity," the suit said.

The plaintiffs say the school district had a hearing to determine if there were grounds to punish the student, but claim the hearing was nothing more than a pretext to expel the student. The parents also say that school officials may have destroyed evidence, including audio tapes, which stymied any chance the parents had to appeal the hearing.

"Additionally, Defendants told Plaintiffs that appeal was futile. The only acceptable result for Defendants was referral to Pathways or expulsion," the suit says.

At Pathways, the parents allege there were no teachers available to instruct the student in advanced placement classes, so the student would have to "try to keep up with the advanced placement program basically on his/her own."

"As a result of these acts and omissions, and others, Minor Plaintiff was forced to withdraw from West Brook High School," the lawsuit states.

At the time, the student was in the top 5 percent of his/her class, with "an exemplary scholastic and conduct record."

The suit alleges that the student was investigated by the police and forced to go into the juvenile probation referral program. The parents say they had to hire both criminal and civil attorneys over the matter.

However the probation department and the Jefferson County District Attorney's Office found no probable cause to pursue criminal action and the case was closed. Under various Texas statutes, all documents relating to the investigation have been sealed by a court order.

But the parents say BISD has "refused to voluntarily comply" with the court order and still has either original documents or copies "of the written defamatory statements."

"Defendants cannot/ will not confirm that no copies exist of defamatory statements," the suit states.

The plaintiffs are suing for shame, embarrassment, mental anguish and physical pain, attorney's fees and actual damages. The plaintiffs also want the minor student's transcripts corrected and cleaned up.

The plaintiffs are demanding a trial by jury and are represented by the Weller, Green, Toups & Terrell law firm.

Judge Gary Sanderson, 60th Judicial District, will preside over the case.

Case No. B180-453

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