She was a standout high school basketball player, her lawyer said, a top scorer who was broken by bullying that happened because she was black.
Larry Crain, a Brentwood attorney, told a federal jury in Nashville on Tuesday about the harassment he said severely harmed the former Hendersonville High School athlete.
“Something happened over the summer of 2013 that (the girl) had never experienced before,” he said. “She became the target of racial slurs and harassment and bullying. Not by team members on the other team. But by her own team members.”
He recounted what white, older teammates told the girl, who is African American: “It smells like black people in here.” “You’re only good at basketball because you’re black.” Crain said the upperclassmen pointed at the girl and said, “That’s my n—–,” a racial epithet the student athlete had not been called before. He said teammates intentionally physically harmed her during games and practices, leaving her bloodied and in tears.
And when the girl and her parents went to coaches and the principal for help, Crain said, the bullying just got worse and coaches suggested the girl needed to toughen up.
The girl’s parents, Arnett and Sherry Hayes, filed a lawsuit in federal court in Nashville in May 2014 alleging the Sumner County Board of Education was responsible for allowing that bullying that harmed the girl’s education. The school district argues the bullying was not pervasive and says the district responded appropriately by investigating the bullying claims. The civil trial began Tuesday.
The girl was a minor and a freshman at Hendersonville in 2013-14. She is named in court documents as “A.H.”
On Tuesday, she testified about the violence she believed was intentional. She sobbed as she described one particularly harsh practice that left her bloodied and bruised. Her mother and father both wiped their eyes in the courtroom as their daughter spoke.
She’s now 18, a senior and promised to play Division I college basketball next year. Crain said that success came after the girl left the school and shows the toxic environment the school district allowed at Hendersonville: Permitting bullying that led the girl to seek counseling caused her grades to drop and forced the family to move out of the county.
The family is asking the jury to hold the district responsible for at least $500,000 damages, according to court documents. The 12 jurors include two minorities.
The Hayeses have a related lawsuit pending in Sumner County Circuit Court, online records show. Two other families have made similar allegations against the district of bullying in both Sumner and federal courts. All but two, both in Sumner County Circuit Court and including the Hayes’, have been closed, records show.
Todd Presnell, an attorney representing the school board, argued in an opening statement that the board is not responsible and the racially motivated bullying did not happen. He said the student’s success shows the harm was not severe. And he said there was no evidence the board was indifferent to the family’s claims.
In fact, he said, the school’s leaders launched a broad investigation when concerns were raised. Two emails from district staff in the court file from early 2014 indicate an investigation was ongoing.
“This case is about trying to save face,” Presnell said. “I’m not talking about (the girl). I’m talking about the parents.”
He said Arnett and Sherry Hayes tried to take their daughter off the team multiple times, leading to problems. He honed in on one game, on Feb. 4, 2014, as crucial for the jury to consider.
He said basketball Coach Amy Wilhite removed a white player and then the girl from the game, each for disobeying the coach’s mandate to pass the ball inside instead of taking shots.
“It was on that day, when this happened, when she was taken out, that’s when the parents become irate,” Presnell told the jury. He said Arnett Hayes declared his daughter was quitting the team, but then regretted the decision and went to Wilhite. Wilhite, who is not a defendant in the lawsuit, left the district in 2014.
“It was only after Coach Wilhite decided, I’m not going to let you back onto the team, that we have our first complaints about racial harassment,” Presnell said.
Reach Stacey Barchenger at 615-726-8968 or on Twitter @sbarchenger.
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