A legal appeal from the mother of a Chittenden County teenager who died by suicide went before the Vermont Supreme Court in Montpelier Tuesday.
Tracy Stopford wants the school district in Milton to bear some responsibility for her son’s 2012 death, following a high-profile case of hazing in the town's high school football team.
Stopford fought back tears as her attorney, Robert Appel, asked the court justices to let her sue the school she believes should’ve done more to help her son.
"In our opinion, the responsible adults fell asleep at the switch, causing tragic, catastrophic results," Appel told the justices of the state’s highest court.
Jordan Preavy ended his life in the summer of 2012, at just 17.
It was later revealed Preavy had been the victim of sexual violence—assaulted with a broom handle by several Milton High School football teammates, on school grounds.
Last year, Vermont Superior Court Judge Robert Mello dismissed a lawsuit from Preavy's family, ruling since the school didn’t know about the football team’s misconduct, administrators couldn’t possibly have prevented it.
The boy’s estate is now appealing, wanting that decision overturned.
Tuesday, Appel argued that supervision of young players was lacking, and claimed there had been prior red flags in the form of anti-gay jokes that meant the athletic program should’ve been on alert—with more “eyes-on” supervision of team activities.
"It was, in my view, a renegade program," Appel said of Milton football.
However, Pietro Lynn, the attorney for the school district, insisted in his arguments to the justices that complaints of abuse simply never made it to the people who could’ve stepped in.
"Schools are not perfect, and in order to hold them liable for hazing, harassment, and bullying, what we need to do is make sure they have actual notice of the behavior to which they must respond," Lynn said.
The attorney for the school district also said in his presentation to the Vermont Supreme Court that he fears greater and greater layers of expectations on schools could cause them to start acting like policemen, focusing more on security and less on education.
Finally, Lynn cast doubt on whether Jordan’s suicide could really be pinned squarely on the hazing, suggesting other mental health struggles might have played a role.
Stopford declined an interview request after the hearing Tuesday, but Appel told necn his client is looking for vindication.
When the case came to light roughly six years ago, it raised awareness of hazing statewide, and led to the creation of a new law—known as Jordan’s Law—which requires much faster notification by school officials to the Vermont Department for Children and Families, if hazing or other abuse is suspected.
The five young men involved in the assault, Brandon Beliveau, Ryan Carlson, Colby Darling, Will Jenkins and Brian Lasell, all cut plea deals to resolve their criminal prosecutions.
As for the justices of the Vermont Supreme Court, there is no word on when they’ll issue their decision on this appeal, but it could take months.