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Jury awards $70,000 to former Pacer dancer but rejects most claims
A U.S. District Court jury awarded a former Lakeridge High School dancer $70,000 Friday night but otherwise found for the defendants in a federal lawsuit that accused the Lake Oswego School District and others of failing to protect the girl from hazing and bullying.
The school district and three of its current or former administrators — Superintendent Heather Beck, Lakeridge Principal Jennifer Schiele and former Athletic Director Ian Lamont — had all faced a claim of negligence in the case. So did former dance team coach Kayla Nordlum and Suzanne Young, a former parent volunteer who helped with team finances and photos.
In addition, Nordlum had faced claims of false imprisonment, a violation of First Amendment rights and intentional infliction of emotional distress. But jurors found for Beck, Lamont, Nordlum and Young on all counts, and split responsibility on the remaining negligence charge — 80 percent against the district and 20 percent against the principal.
All of the $70,000 was awarded to the former Pacer dancer; no money was awarded to her parents, and jurors also rejected a separate claim for legal fees. A charge of negligence against Ashley Nordlum, who worked as an assistant dance team coach with her sister, was dismissed on Thursday.
"We received a fair trial this week," Beck told The Review on Friday night. "Our most important concern is that our students receive a first-rate education in a safe and welcoming environment. We are delivering on that promise every day. We have learned from these events and strengthened our commitment to providing a positive athletics culture, and we have changed our policies, procedures and practices with our coaching staff."
The federal lawsuit was filed two years ago by Lake Oswego residents Ray and Taissa Achcar-Winkels, who claimed their daughter and other incoming freshmen were hazed at a series of "team bonding" events that culminated in an August 2014 team initiation.
The former dancer, who was identified in court documents only as "S.A.," was 14 years old when the alleged incidents took place. She is now a senior at Lakeridge High School. The plaintiffs had sought economic and non-economic damages, as well as punitive damages for what court documents called a "malicious, oppressive and/or reckless disregard for plaintiffs' rights."
"A jury said the school district and principal were negligent. That's all we wanted," said attorney Leta Gorman, who represented the Achcar-Winkels. "This case was never about money. It was about holding the school district accountable for what they did."
Attorney Luke Reese, who represented the Nordlum sisters, told The Review on Tuesday that his clients "are grateful for the jury's decision and they appreciate being cleared of wrongdoing. They also wish everyone the best as we move past what was a difficult few years of litigation."
Young's attorney declined to comment.
The case was handed to the jury just before 2 p.m. Friday after attorneys for the Achcar-Winkels and the defendants painted vastly different portraits of the case in their closing arguments.
Leta Gorman, who represented the dancer and her parents, told jurors the lawsuit centered around a toxic environment that surrounded the dance team, calling it "a culture that breeds fear of recrimination for speaking up."
She said the defense spent an extraordinary amount of time attacking the motives and behavior of Taissa Achcar-Winkels when "this is about a girl that stood up to wrong and is trying to do the right thing. This is about her decision."
Gorman said that Schiele, Lamont and Beck failed to do their jobs by not protecting the young dancer from retaliation and bullying.
"There was a complete failure of any defendant to stand up and say no (to her treatment)," Gorman said. "(This case) is about the failure of the defendants to protect (the dancer) time and time again."
But Karen Vickers, the attorney representing the school district and its current and former employees, disagreed. She told jurors the district did not conduct an immediate investigation into the August 2014 hazing incident because the Achcar-Winkels explicitly told them they did not want one and did not want the girls who conducted the hazing to be punished.
Plain and simple, Vickers said, "What they tried to do was to do what was in the best interest of (the dancer)."
According to court documents, the Achcar-Winkels' daughter and other incoming dancers reportedly were pelted with water pistols at the hazing incident; covered with syrup and feathers and told to wrestle in front of intoxicated students, some of them male; coaxed to step deeper and deeper into the Willamette River late at night; and forced to ride unbuckled on the floor of cars.
Lamont, who resigned as athletic director at the end of the school year in 2015, testified Thursday that when he found out about the hazing a few days later, he called Ray Achcar-Winkels to discuss it. The two men already knew each other, Lamont said, because he coached both of their sons in youth lacrosse, and they agreed to meet shortly after the phone conversation.
At that meeting, Lamont said, both Ray and Taissa Achcar-Winkels told him that they were not interested in pursuing an investigation, did not want any of the girls involved in the hazing to be punished and wanted to remain anonymous.
"They just wanted the hazing to stop," Lamont said.
On Wednesday, Taissa Achcar-Winkels told a different story. She said she and her husband had several telephone conversations with Schiele and Lamont after reporting the hazing incident. She said they were repeatedly told to keep quiet about their daughter's allegations in any communication with people associated with the Pacer Dance Team.
Opening an investigation into the hazing was "one of the options presented to us," Achcar-Winkels testified. "But the only one that protected my daughter from retaliation would be to not do an investigation. We were guaranteed that she would be protected by the administration. I don't believe they did what they could."
During her closing argument Friday, Vickers said school and district officials didn't know that the Achcar-Winkels were unhappy with the district's response until sometime in November 2014, when the parents reached out to Beck and asked her to launch an investigation. Beck did so, contracting with The Hungerford Law Firm to determine whether hazing and bullying had occurred.
Between those times, Vickers said, the parents were nothing but complimentary in their conversations with Nordlum, Schiele and Lamont, praising them for how they handled the situation and thanking them for their friendship.
In addition to the August 2014 initiation, Nordlum's actions during a "team bonding" trip to Sunriver were also at the heart of the trial. The Achcar-Winkels claimed the coach forced dancers to stay in their rooms by blocking doors with duct tape — until parents objected. Court documents also referred to an overnight trip to Gearhart in June 2014; during that event, team members gathered around a campfire to play a game called "Ten Fingers."
During that game, court records said, "senior PDT dancers disclosed activities they had previously engaged in and other PDT dancers were to indicate if they had engaged in the same activity by raising a finger. Several senior PDT dancers volunteered that they had taken drugs or engaged in sexual activities."
The Achcar-Winkels' daughter was so upset by the game, court documents said, that she quickly walked away from the campfire.
In his defense of Nordlum, attorney Luke Reese said his client's ability to coach the team safely was dependent upon the information she had, and he contended that the evidence showed that Nordlum had no knowledge that the team's seniors planned to haze and bully the younger girls.
Reese also insisted that Nordlum did not know the identity of the young dancer who had complained to administrators shortly after the initial hazing, making it impossible for her to retaliate.
"There's nothing that Coach Nordlum did herself to cause any stress (to the Achcar-Winkels family)," Reese said. "Her conduct didn't invite this lawsuit."
He also disputed the charge of false imprisonment against Nordlum that stemmed from the actions she took during the Sunriver trip. Reese acknowledged that the taping went too far, and the young dancer testified earlier in the trial that she was not able to open the door to her room because of the tape. But Reese said Nordlum checked the doors to make sure they could be opened and made sure the girls had her cellphone number in case there was a problem.
In his closing argument on behalf of Young, attorney Robert Scholz said there was absolutely no evidence presented that showed his client knew that the August 2014 "team bonding" event was taking place. He also questioned why Taissa Achcar-Winkels, who witnessed the hazing from a nearby tree, did not intervene or alert authorities.
"She kept that information from a significant number of other parents who had no idea this even took place until the following December," he said.
Scholz questioned Taissa Achcar-Winkels' motives in bringing the lawsuit, saying she was not trying to right a wrong but rather had a "pure vendetta" against the defendants.
"Everybody has moved on but one person," he said.
Scholz also questioned the Achcar-Winkels' decision to keep their daughter at Lakeridge despite the girl's testimony that she did not trust anyone at the school. The former dancer told jurors on the first day of the trial that she was terrified during the hazing incidents.
"I was not OK with what had happened," 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."
She also said that the bullying continued even after she left the team just weeks into her freshman year.
"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.
Why would parents let their daughter be subjected to all of that, Scholz asked jurors on Friday, "unless you wanted to come to court and prove you're right?"
On Friday night, Beck told The Review that the LOSD has taken positive steps in the years since the hazing incident, including requiring every LOSD employee to follow rules that she said are very clear.
"The district does not tolerate this behavior," Beck said.
Beck said the LOSD has elevated its athletic director positions to district administrators, which means they can evaluate employees. Prior to 2015, athletic directors were unable to evaluate, assess or discipline coaches. Consequently, LOSD coaches now are evaluated each year for their treatment of student athletes and their ability to follow procedures, among other things.
In addition, LOSD athletic directors Brigham Baker and Terry Moore now host mandatory pre-season and ongoing meetings with their head coaches. During these meetings, policies and protocols are discussed extensively, Beck said. Coaches are also required to sign acknowledgements after receiving training about hazing and harassment.
"Continuous improvement is part of the LOSD culture," Beck said. "The administration and coaching staff are currently working together to revise the coaching handbook that informs coaching behavior on and off the field, court and gym floor."