PLAINFIELD, Ind. – On Sept. 28, Ben Slaton made a serious error in judgment that directly damaged two lives. With one click of a button on his phone, everything changed.
Before Sept. 28, Slaton was the star quarterback at Plainfield. Division I programs were starting to make contact with the 16-year-old junior, who was on his way to a solid B average in the classroom.
After Sept. 28, Slaton was off the football team and expelled from school. Some friends he’s had since elementary school no longer text or call. His football recruitment has slowed. Slaton fills his days completing school work online, working out and wishing he could turn back time.
“Hopefully,” his father, Damon Slaton said, “a lot of people have had the Ben Slaton conversation in their household.”
In class on that September day, Slaton was seated directly across from a teacher, about 10-15 feet away. The teacher, wearing a skirt, was seated at a desk similar to a student’s desk.
“I thought it would be funny to take a picture and send it to my friends,” Slaton said.
Slaton said he took the photo and sent it to three friends on Snapchat. The photo, seen by an IndyStar reporter, does not show the teacher’s face, but is clearly inappropriate. It shows her feet on the floor, legs uncrossed.
“By no means is what he did acceptable,” Damon Slaton said. “He set the entire chain of events in motion. He broke my rule by having a cellphone in school. He made another conscious decision to take a picture in class – an inappropriate picture. It was. And then he made the conscious decision to share that picture with three other people.”
Slaton deleted the photo from his phone, but a screenshot from Snapchat was forwarded to more students. The Plainfield administration brought Slaton into the office the next day at school.
“I waited there for like three hours alone in the office,” Slaton said. “A police officer escorted me out of the building and took me to the (police) station.”
Capt. Jill Lees of the Plainfield Police Department said the department could not provide a report because the incident involved a juvenile. There are no pending charges against Slaton, according to the Hendricks County prosecutor’s office.
Slaton said he was originally given a three-day suspension, then was told by superintendent Scott Olinger that he would be expelled for the rest of the semester.
Negative reaction was swift after Slaton was removed from the football team and school. He said some friends were told by their parents not to hang out with him. Another friend texted to tell Slaton that he was not allowed to come to the friend’s house. The stories about what Slaton did circulated like a game of telephone.
“Everybody thought they knew the whole story,” Damon Slaton said. “We heard everything from ‘Ben had a camera mounted on the desk’ to ‘Ben had a camera on his shoe’ to ‘Ben came up and took a picture under her skirt.’ We heard everything imaginable. It kind of manifested into something that it wasn’t. We lost some friends over it. He lost some friends. Some parents wouldn’t let him over to the house for a while. Nobody really knew the whole story. Everybody kept thinking, ‘There has to be more to what you’re describing the picture as.’ But there wasn’t.”
The photo, while clearly inappropriate to take and share, is shadowy and not fulling revealing beyond her legs. But the stories continued to spread like wildfire. Damon Slaton, an eighth-grade football coach in the Plainfield system, said many parents expressed support for his family.
Brent Schwanekamp, an assistant principal at Plainfield, declined to comment about Ben Slaton due to his current role. But Schwanekamp, a former teacher and assistant football coach at Plainfield, wrote a letter in support of Slaton’s character in November. Schwanekamp has known Ben for 10 years, going back to when Ben was a water boy for the football team.
His letter read, in part: “Ben’s actions on that day earlier this semester are unfortunate, and he has received many consequences from the school academically and athletically. He had not had previous discipline of any magnitude, and this behavior was out of character for this young man that I have known since he was in elementary school. It is clear that Ben showed terrible judgement on that day, but he has demonstrated remorse and is hopeful for forgiveness.”
This is the part the Slaton family struggles with. From all indications, Ben did not have a track record of discipline issues. In his letter, Schwanekamp wrote of his “hard work, passion and competitiveness.” Slaton, who turned 17 on Nov. 20, was asked to describe his reputation in school.
“A good student,” he said. “Quiet in the classroom. I got my work done. I was a student and a football player. That’s always how it was. I wasn’t a troublemaker.”
Slaton was told not to have contact with the teacher, but plans to write a letter of apology that he’ll give to Plainfield administration to pass along.
Dr. Anne Lewis, a licensed counseling psychologist based in Fishers, said it is important to remember that the victim in this case is the teacher.
“She can’t control where that photo gets sent and that’s where the real violation comes in,” Lewis said. “That can have a traumatizing effect. Depending on how much anxiety it brings to her, it can change the type of clothes she wears to work. It takes away some of her freedom.”
Damon Slaton said he does not harbor any ill will toward the Plainfield administration. He has been friends with Plainfield football coach Brian Woodard for several years and led the youth football program in Plainfield in addition to coaching the eighth-grade team.
“Brian and I are good friends and the principal, Mr. (Mel) Seifert, and assistant principal Schwanekamp are good guys,” Damon Slaton said. “I have good roots in this community. I still do.”
Instead, the Slatons have decided to have Ben transfer to Danville. He will start classes there Jan. 3. How will he be perceived at his new school?
“I’m sure it will carry over, but I feel like it won’t be as bad,” he said. “It will get me a little bit away from it. No matter where I go, I will still probably hear about it. But it will be different – a different community. I think that will help out.”
There are those around Plainfield who believe the right move would be for Slaton to return to Plainfield and pass his story along to younger kids in the school. Damon Slaton said the family plans to move to Danville. The Slatons met with the Plainfield administration last week and were assured it would sign off on his athletic eligibility.
“He will have to adhere to the same stipulations he would have had at Plainfield,” Damon Slaton said. “We didn’t feel like in good conscience we could have sent him back there. It’s too much. We felt like it was going to be difficult to get a fair shake. We felt like a change of environment was going to be a lot better moving forward.”
Slaton had started at quarterback since his freshman year at Plainfield. As a sophomore, he passed for 2,136 yards and 22 touchdowns. In his six games as a junior before he was expelled, Slaton passed for 1,170 yards and 14 TDs. Illinois State and Indiana State, programs that had offered before the incident, have continued to recruit him. Ohio and Miami of Ohio remain in contact.
“Some of those periphery schools like Purdue, Michigan State and Wake Forest have gone away,” Damon Slaton said. “If you are No. 7 or 8 on somebody’s board, it’s real easy to mark Ben Slaton off the list.”
Slaton said he spent a lot of time after he was expelled wishing he could turn back the clock.
“I can’t look at it like that,” he said. “Now I have to look at it like, ‘What am I going to do from it?’”
Asked about sharing what he has learned with other teens, Slaton said: “I feel like I would tell them the story and ask them, who uses Snapchat? Have you ever taken something inappropriate or sent it out? I’d use it as an example to help them out.”
If there is a lesson here – beyond not taking an inappropriate photo in the first place – it might be how one mistake, compounded by the power of social media, can change numerous lives.
Lewis, the psychologist, thinks that is where some good can come from the situation.
“We don’t need to bash him as a human being,” Lewis said. “He made a dumb choice and has to live with the consequences. We all have to live with consequences of our choices. But it can be turned into something positive he can learn from.”