Coopersville School District Has a Duty to Release Sum
by Hank Nuwer
A hazing settlement in the news in Michigan is a case of deja vu all over.
Back in 1997, Rancho Bernardo High School (California, Poway School District) endured the physical hazing and sexual assault of a junior varsity baseball player.
After a rookie baseball player was sodomized with an object in the locker
room, he settled for $675,000 with the district, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. The paper had gone to uncommon lengths to get the school district to reveal any details at all.
Court records showed that the attack was part of a six-year pattern of assault in several sports and was deeply entrenched in school athletics, according to the newspaper which cited facts from these court records.
The key to why the Union-Tribune fought so hard is that the Poway district was forking over money from taxpayer dollars.
Now flashforward 12 years and reporter John Tunison of The Grand Rapids Press in Michigan has reported this news item on July 15: the “Coopersville school district settles  hazing case for undisclosed sum.”
Undisclosed sum. Shades of Poway. Red flag up and waving for the Coopersville school district to see.
The quotes he supplied echoes precisely what the embattled officials of the Poway school district said twelve years ago.
“We don’t want everything stirred up and have any animosity toward these kids,” Superintendent Kevin O’Neill said, according to the Press.
The federal judge who approved “an undisclosed settlement Tuesday between the Coopersville school district and two victims of 2007 hazing incidents,” made “a deal officials said is confidential to protect victims from harassment and move the community forward.”
I am not questioning the sincerity of the statement by Supervisor O’Neill nor the good intentions of the judge. But a judge’s job is not to rewrite the law but to carry out the law. The job of the Coopersville supervisor is to tell taxpayers exactly where their dollars are spent–or if the settlement will be covered by insurance [in which case it may be even more sticky for the superintendent to reveal the amount. But if that is true, the superintendent can put responsibility on the insurance company, not the judge).
As a former assistant prosecutor in Michigan familiar with hazing cases reminded me today, confidential settlements in civil cases are very common. Both parties must agree to the resolution and the confidentiality agreement. The agreement usually provides that if a party violates the confidentiality agreement, additional sanctions can be imposed–usually monetary–that would cost (in this case) the school district additional funds.
The judge usually has no say in the matter. It is not up to the judge to impose her or his will upon the settlement or the agreement. If the parties agree to the confidentiality, the judge says, “Okay.â€ According to the former assistant prosecutor, in other cases it has occurred that school administrators attempt to shift responsibility to the judge when it is, after all, an agreement between the parties to the litigation. Is it possible that Superintendent Oâ€™Neill, through his quotes, hoped to shift the burden to the judge as to why the settlement was confidential.
Of course a judge retains the discretion in any case to approve or disapprove a settlement, but it would be rare for a judge to nix such a civil case settlement. There are hundreds of pending cases in a federal court and the vast majority of cases are settled before trial. It behooves a judge to bring as many cases as possible to early resolution.
One hopes that the Press was quoting from an official court document in writing for me to believe that a judge noted on the record or to the parties that the court decided on its own to add a condition of confidentiality. Without such a document the superintendent might have been allowed to get away with fluff (and remember that a judge cannot and except in unusual situations should not respond to media questions about a case).
Nonetheless, it would be a good thing for the newspaper to reveal the amount. A few points soberly to consider:
If settlements could not be maintained as confidential, the judicial process could–I am not predicting that it would–back up, according to my former assistant prosecutor friend. The confidential aspect of settlement agreements may factor in plaintiff or defendant (or both) resolving cases short of trial. Some parents of hazing victims do not want people to know how much or how little they received, as was the case following a death years ago at Alfred University.
I also agree the names of the victims should be omitted. Is there anyone in the Coopersville school district who doesn’t already know the names? But important information that the public needs to know and that may influence public policy elsewhere in Michigan or even nationwide needs to come out with traditional public disclosure. This is probably not an issue for the Press. Except in a few cases (most notably Robertson High School in New Mexico in 2009 where perpetrators saw their names in print), newspapers tend to take the high road of protecting the names of all juveniles no matter what their involvement.
In other words the rights of the victims can be protected without taking away the right of the public to judge its school officials.
And at Poway, there certainly were huge questions raised about the stewardship of Poway school administrators. Those questions only could be raised by full disclosure and written documents, not what turned out to be the self-serving assertions of Poway administrators.
So what we have here is the need for precedent in such cases. The settlement amount may be low after attorney fees and expenses are paid. Other families of victims may be reluctant to take a case to court, but it is the responsibility of the newspaper to report the facts, not be an advocate here.
The San Diego newspaper did what it was supposed to do, unpopular decision or not with the District.
It showed taxpayers what their tax dollars were paying for and why.
Coopersville in my opinion too has a duty to reveal all here in the newspaper. All, I mean, but the names of victims and the perpetrators.
Is this painful?
You bet. But it may stop another school district from becoming another Poway or Coopersville in the future because school boards and school administrators elsewhere are getting a hard lesson in the necessity of hazing prevention.
Itâ€™s my job as an author of four books on hazing to try to track these cases so that reporters representing the public good have some case history to examine. All these hazing cases are slowly but surely going to be in the archives of the Buffalo State Hazing Collection I started for reporters and scholars to check.
The buck doesnâ€™t stop here just because a school supervisor–likely with the approval of the board on advice of counsel–says so.
The buck stops with what a good newspaper can uncover. That is why the Grand Rapids Press needs to file a freedom of information request.
And if you feel strongly one way or the other, why not write a letter to the editor?
Update 1:34 p.m.
Update: 5:33 p.m.