April 20, 2020

A Case of Bullying - A Prep School's "Chosen" One | Cup of Joe

This week we will study a case out of Norwich, New York in Chenango County. It lies near the center of the triangle that can be drawn connecting the cities of Syracuse, Albany, and Binghamton.  The Norwich City Court is located in a renovated Freight Train Station. It was here that a student’s parents sued Milford Academy for not protecting their child against what their son described as being “chosen” – not bullied.

Norwich is the home of the founder of Chobani Yogurt, Hamdi Ulukaya

Hamdi was born in 1972 to a Kurdish family in Turkey. His family had a sheep, goat, and dairy farm near the Euphrates River. After studying political science at Ankara University, in 1994, Hamdi moved to the United States to study English at Adelphi University on Long Island, New York. In 1997 he moved upstate and transferred to the University at Albany, State University of New York where he enrolled in a few business courses.

In the spring of 2005, Hamdi noticed a piece of junk mail advertising a fully equipped yogurt factory for sale in Central New York.  The 84-year-old factory had been closed by Kraft Foods.  Although he initially threw the flier away, Hamdi toured the plant the following day and decided to buy it, against the advice of his attorney and business advisor. Hamdi financed the purchase within five months with a loan from the Small Business Administration, plus local business-incentive grants.  Inc. magazine named Hamdi one of the most important entrepreneurs of the past decade in 2019. The success of his yogurt empire has made Hamdi a billionaire. Chobani oatmilk -- non-dairy -- is a downstate (and Berlin, NJ) favorite.

Also hailing from Norwich is actress Calista Kay Flockhart, best known for her roles as the title character on Ally McBeal , a lawyer-show that frequently dealt with workplace discrimination cases, sexism and Ally kicking her high heels off purely as an acceptable professional gesture. Calista was offered the role of Susan Mayer on Desperate Housewives but declined, and the role later went to Teri Hatcher.

Finally, to our case against Milford Academy, the famous prep school, attended by the likes of actor Vincent Price (The Fly – “Heeelp Meeee”), Efrem Zimbalist Jr., and Buster from Arrested Development (might need a fact-check on Buster).

The Case

Julia filed a claim against Milford in the amount of $5,000.00, for a tuition refund after enrolling her son Craig there who was the victim of several bullying incidents, that there was a lack of proper supervision, that her son was seriously injured, and that he withdrew from the program because he did not feel safe, and that the defendant could not assure the plaintiff that they had the ability to protect her son in the future. Julia’s request for a tuition refund was denied by Milford. Craig’s mom sued. This is the testimony from the trial over in Norwich City Court.

Testimony of Craig - The Chosen

Q. Craig, when did the first incident at Milford take place?
A. About two weeks after enrolling at the Academy on August 10, another player, within a group of 12-15 students who typically went nuts in the evenings, had broken into my dorm room and dumped a large bucket of water on my bed. 
Q. What happened after that?
A. The guy who dumped water on my bed went to the gym with the expectation that we would fight. I followed the player to the gym, and I threw a bucket of water at him, and we fought. My head was bleeding, so I was done fighting, but the other guy followed me back to our dorm rooms and hit me a few more times in the head before the fight was broken up. 
Q. Were any coaches present during this altercation?
A. None that came out of their rooms. No.
Q. Did you seek medical attention?
A. I thought that I might need stitches but I went to bed. 
Q. What happened the next day.
A. After practice, Coach looked at my face and made arrangement to take me to the hospital where I got 18 stitches on my face.
Q. Did Coach reprimand anyone?
A. Coach told the team that there would be no more fighting or everyone would get kicked out of the Academy.
Q. Was there a second incident?
A. The second incident took place about two weeks after the first. The wide receivers -- me being one of them -- we were confused about weight training and missed a morning workout. As a punishment, the whole team had to run on the hill. A defensive tackle ran down the hill at full speed and hit me as I was talking to another teammate. While I was on the ground, the defensive tackle began swinging punches at me before another teammate pulled the player off of me. The right side of my face was swollen. 
Q. Did the coaches do anything to stop the fight?

A. The coaches came down from the top of the hill when I got jumped and told us to stop.
Q. Were there any other incidents?
A. Yeah. My roommate asked me to pick up a western union payment from his roomate's father at Walmart. I told him that I could not do it right away because I was out with some other teammates. Then my  roommate said that "I would have done it for you; you'll have to fight me when I get back." So, when I  got back to campus, my roommate ran down the hall towards me and body slammed me. 
After a few minutes, the fight was broken up by another teammate. 
Q. Did the coaches do anything as a result of that last incident?
A. I was moved into the only dorm room on the first floor. I stayed there for one night and, I just felt that the situation was not going to improve by being isolated from the other players, so I went home. For good.
Q. Are there any recordings of any of the incidents?
A. Yes. On Snapchat, you can see an encounter that took place in a dorm room where a group of students dumped a Gatorade sized bucket of water on another student's bed. That student then dumped a bucket of water in the hallway in an act of retaliation, challenging others to clean it up. Following a fight in the dorm room, the brawl resumed in the gym with a large group of players circled around the two who were fighting. This was the norm at the Academy before I withdrew.
Q. What else would you describe as being the norm?
A. There would be players shooting bb guns throughout the campus. A group of 12-15 students regularly barged into rooms dumping water filled Gatorade buckets on players' beds before retreating to the gym for a fight between the offender and the targeted player.
Q. What was done by the school?
A. Coach told the players that they would be in trouble if he found any more bb guns, but there was never any player-specific discipline for these things.

Cross Examination of Craig

Q. You are complaining here that you were bullied?
A. I wasn’t bullied, I would use the word "chosen."

Examination of Coach

Q. You do not deny Craig’s version of how things are with the players at Milford?

A. The students have to find a way to have some fun, as there is not much for them to do outside of the school. Players will have wars between floors, such as using super soakers, raiding each other with buckets of water, and similar shenanigans, and fighting is not uncommon at the beginning, because that is how they are. There is a lot of testosterone, and boys will be boys.
Q. And the coaches did nothing in response?
A. Look, the problems that do arise typically take place when the coaches are asleep; they can't see everything all the time; they can't deal with a problem until it happens.
Q. What about the students engaged in boxing and wrestling from the Snapchat video?
A. They either quit or were suspended; and, the student found shooting a BB-gun was removed from the Academy, and all of the guns were confiscated.
Q. Are there written rules of conduct?
A. There was no particular player "code of conduct" or manual for addressing interpersonal issues that could arise at the Academy. But there are punishments for breaking the rules that vary, depending on the severity of the violation. 
Q. Any examples of “punishments?”
A.  A couple examples are that inappropriate behaviors might result in the power to the dormitories being shut off at 10:00 PM or to invoke a rule that nobody is to leave the building.
Q. What do you do to ensure a safe environment?
A. Nobody is in danger at any time. Most of the conflict is horseplay.
Q. Why was Craig isolated on the first floor?
A. Some people like to live alone.
Q. Why did you not return the tuition when asked by Craig’s mother?
A. The Academy's no refund policy is essential: The Academy has a selection process that results in about 900 kids being turned away from the program each year. The program budgets for a specific numbers of players, all of whom have some sort of issue or shortcoming in their past to be seeking admission into the program, and that they cannot replace a player who leaves the program mid-year. Any refunds would undermine the Academy's budget in any given year.
Q. Why couldn’t you work things out for Craig to remain at Milford?
A. Ultimately, the mother wanted a guarantee that Craig would be in no more fights, which I could not guarantee.

Judge's Ruling

While students may typically survive the rigors and occasional chaos at the Academy, which no doubt provides students with exceptional opportunities, it does not justify the types of behaviors explained by Craig.

 The lack of obvious oversight during nighttime hours, along with the apparent lack of concern or knowledge of potential consequences would likely justify any player who felt targeted or "chosen" in the manner as Craig to withdraw from the Academy, even if that student may have prompted some antagonism. 

With the attention that has been brought through headlines and social media of inappropriate activities that have taken place in various venues of the sporting world, it is ever more important to have written and executed policies in place to create an adequate system of checks and balances to avoid the circumstances experienced by Craig and possibly others. Unfortunately, nothing of the sort was in place at the Academy. 

While the Academy "Application Agreement" provided for no refunds in the event of absence, dismissal, or withdrawal, such a provision is unconscionable in so far as it eliminates any requirement that the Academy act in good faith and fair dealing towards its students/players.

For all of these reasons, I find that the mother is entitled to at least a partial reimbursement of the tuition she paid for Craig. While the tuition was $20,000.00, as Craig was at the Academy for approximately 6 weeks out of his year commitment, I find that the plaintiff is entitled to $5,000.00, the jurisdictional limit of this court.

The End

The “No Refund” policy is ruled to be illegal. Craig wins; Milford loses. 

Here is the case: http://www.courts.state.ny.us/reporter/3dseries/2018/2018_52006.htm

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