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'I was not OK with what had happened. I was terrified'
A former Lakeridge High School dancer and her mother told a U.S. District Court jury on Tuesday about a team sleepover that they say devolved from an innocent movie night into a dangerous initiation that involved hazing, bullying and worse.
The Lake Oswego School District and several current or former administrators — Superintendent Heather Beck, Lakeridge High Principal Jennifer Schiele and former Athletic Director Ian Lamont — all face a claim of negligence in the case. So do former dance team coaches Kayla and Ashley Nordlum and former parent volunteer Suzanne Young, who helped with team finances and photos.
In addition, Kayla Nordlum faces claims of false imprisonment, a violation of First Amendment rights and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The plaintiffs are seeking economic and non-economic damages, as well as punitive damages for what court documents call a "malicious, oppressive and/or reckless disregard for plaintiffs' rights."
The federal lawsuit was filed two years ago by Lake Oswego residents Ray and Taissa Achcar-Winkels, who claim their daughter and other incoming freshmen were hazed at a series of "team bonding incidents" that culminated in an August 2014 team initiation.
The former dancer, who is identified in court documents only as "S.A.," was 14 years old when the alleged incidents took place. Now a high school senior at Lakeridge, she was the first to take the stand Tuesday in what is expected to be a four-day trial.
The girl told jurors that she and other dancers had gathered at a team member's house for a sleepover and were about to get into their pajamas when plans changed from a movie night to something more.
"All of a sudden, two boys in costumes jumped out," she said, "and the girls started yelling, 'Initiation!"
Senior dancers then had the younger girls dress up in costumes and perform a variety of "dares" in downtown Lake Oswego after blindfolding them and making them ride on the floors of the seniors' cars from location to location, she said.
"They said you have to do it, there was no option. It was just, 'You're going to do it,'" the former dancer testified. She said that some of the girls were dared to go into fast food restaurants and shout sexually suggestive things before the entire group was driven to Lakeridge High School.
When they got there, "we could hear a ton of people screaming and talking, surrounding us." When the blindfolds were removed, she said, she realized that they were surrounded by about 30 people, including boys and girls not on the dance team.
She said she could smell marijuana and saw people consuming alcohol, but that no members of the Pacer Dance Team did so. The girls were next asked to perform one of their dance routines.
"They told us there would be consequences if we don't remember our dance," she said. "I was so nervous that I didn't remember. The people that were surrounding us starting throwing water balloons, some filled with oatmeal. They squirted us with water guns, and eventually just threw the guns at us."
"We were told to take off our costumes, which we only had bikinis under. We were told to put on trash bags with holes for our arms and head," she said. The girls then had to wrestle on tarps covered in syrup to see who would be the "last one standing."
According to the former dancer, the evening also included taking the girls to George Rogers Park and forcing them to answer questions about their coach, Kayla Nordlum, who was new to the program. For every answer a girl got wrong, everyone had to take a step further into the Willamette River. She ended up in water up to her shoulders, the girl testified.
"I was not OK with what had happened. I was terrified," she said "I thought that had I stood up and said I didn't want to do it, it wouldn't have ended up well either way."
What the dancer didn't know was that her mother, Taissa Achcar-Winkels, was actually a witness to the initiation.
When she dropped her daughter off for the sleepover, Achcar-Winkels testified, she was told by another parent that the team was going to the high school to be "terrorized" by other students.
"I didn't know what 'terrorized' (meant). I didn't have children in high school," Achcar-Winkels said. "So the worst things I could think of came to mind."
Achcar-Winkels said she put on her jogging clothes and walked to Lakeridge, which is not far from her house.
"I was already feeling extremely nervous about what I just heard," she said. "So I went for a walk. I was just going to go and see what was happening."
Attorney Karen Vickers, who represents the school district and its current and former administrators, claims in court documents that Achcar-Winkels then watched the initiation from a nearby tree and recorded a video on her cellphone, which she deleted after showing it to her husband. She did not alert the police or school district officials about what transpired, Vickers says, nor did she intervene at the time.
And when the dancer called her mother after the girls had returned to the sleepover, court documents say, Achcar-Winkels encouraged her daughter to stay.
In her opening statement Tuesday, Vickers said her clients did not punish the dancers involved in the hazing at the wishes of the Achcar-Winkels family. She said Schiele, Lamont and the district handled things appropriately when they found out about the hazing, and that they believed the incident to be resolved until Nov. 6, 2014, when the Achcar-Winkels brought their concerns about the dance team to Beck.
At that point, the superintendent contracted with The Hungerford Law Firm to conduct an independent investigation and implemented a series of corrective measures when the firm's report confirmed that hazing had occurred.
"This young woman was absolutely correct to tell her coach that she was uncomfortable with the events that happened on Aug. 9," Vickers told jurors. "No one in the school district faults her for that."
Luke Reese, the attorney representing the Nordlums, told jurors in his opening statement that his clients had very little knowledge of the hazing incident or who had expressed concern about the initiation. The Nordlums did not retaliate against the young dancer, he said, because they didn't know that it was her who had complained.
And Robert D. Scholz, who represents Young, said his client also had little to no involvement in the hazing events or their repercussions. "(S.A.) testified that she doesn't blame Suzanne Young for any of the incidents," he said.
But Leta Gorman, the attorney for the Achcar-Winkels, told jurors that the defendants' response to the initiation and two other team events paints a different picture.
"We're here because of the hazing," she said, "but we're also here because of the action that each one of the defendants took that encouraged and allowed my clients to be bullied, harassed and retaliated against."
The young dancer actually left the team about a week into her freshman year. On Tuesday, she said she was bullied and harassed not only by other dance team members, but by the coaches as well. Eventually, she believed her entire school had turned against her.
"I was bullied, I was retaliated (against). After I spoke up, the principals, the administration did nothing," she said. "They just let the girls keep bullying me. I had a really hard time. No one checked to see if I was OK."
Even three years later, she said, the bullying hasn't stopped. Just last Saturday, she told jurors, she found obscenities written in lipstick on her car windows.