A Nashville jury handed Sumner County schools a victory Friday, ruling that staffers at a high school were not at fault in a bullying lawsuit brought by a former standout basketball player there.
Arnett and Sherry Hayes sued the Sumner County Board of Education, saying the district was responsible for allowing their daughter Anastasia to be bullied because of her race. Anastasia Hayes, who is African-American and testified during trial, said older, white teammates at Hendersonville High School used racial epithets toward her and physically harmed her during practices.
But the jury’s Friday verdict, which came after about two hours of deliberation, found no evidence of bullying nor prejudice in the district or school, according to Todd Presnell, a lawyer who represented the school.
“The message is that the Sumner County school system has a robust anti-bullying, anti-discrimination policy that they enforce,” he said. “The jury’s verdict validates that, and we’re happy with that.”
Anastasia Hayes, now a senior at Riverdale High School, has been a starter for the Lady Warriors since she and her family moved to Murfreesboro before her sophomore year.
The 5-foot-7 point guard has committed to Tennessee and is the No. 9-rated prospect in the country, according to HoopGurlz. She was a Miss Basketball finalist last season and helped lead Riverdale to a Class AAA state championship in 2016.
Anastasia Hayes is looking forward to starting her college career, the Hayes family’s lawyer, Larry Crain, said.
“Anastasia Hayes is an exceptional student who we still believe was subjected to racial harassment,” he said, adding that he accepted the jury’s ruling.
The Hayeses filed their federal lawsuit in 2014, about the time two other families filed state and federal cases against the district with similar allegations. That willingness to go to court over bullying comes amid a nationwide shift as communities realize bullying is a serious problem, and not just part of growing up, according Public Justice Senior Attorney Adele Kimmel.
Kimmel leads Public Justice’s anti-bullying campaign, which promotes change in how schools respond to harassment in part by filing lawsuits against districts. Public Justice is not involved in the Nashville case.
“Over the last decade there’s been a real increase (in lawsuits),” Kimmel said. “Fifteen years ago, you didn’t even have state anti-bullying laws. It really is a cultural shift.”
The jury trial began Tuesday in Nashville before Senior U.S. District Judge Billy Roy Wilson, who normally works in Arkansas but has been hearing cases as needed in Nashville. The crux of the case was whether the bullying was so severe it impeded the student’s education, and whether the district was responsible. The Hayes family had asked for $500,000.
The family and the school district argued that Anastasia Hayes’ success was important for the jury to consider. She is now 18.
Crain said it showed the grave impact the climate at the school had on the student-athlete. When she was at Hendersonville, he said during an opening statement at trial, her grades suffered, she was physically harmed and she had to go for counseling.
Presnell said the allegations of bullying were merely the parents’ response to their daughter being removed from the team. And he said the district launched a full investigation of the complaints.
In bullying lawsuits, students have to show the school knew about the harassment, the harassment deprived the student of educational opportunities and the district responded with deliberate indifference, Kimmel said.
“There are quite a few hurdles that students have to overcome to be successful,” she said.
Kimmel said the growing number of lawsuits nationwide shows schools need to create plans to address bullying. She added that federal appeals courts have ruled against districts that do not adapt their response to bullying.
“If they’re using the same means to address a problem and it’s not having an impact, and not fixing the problem, if their method is ineffective to address bullying, it needs to be corrected,” she said. “And that’s what the courts have said.”
Prep Sports Coordinator Tom Kreager contributed to this report. Reach Stacey Barchenger at 615-726-8968 and on Twitter @sbarchenger.
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