E-mail Story   Print Story
  Comments (3) Total Wednesday Apr. 23, 2014
Ruling Raises Questions About Athletic Policy
After Court Decision, Star Football Player Back on Team
File photo by Lido Vizzutti/Flathead Beacon
A judge’s recent decision to overturn the suspension of a star football player from Flathead High School has highlighted questions surrounding School District 5’s extracurricular activities policy.

The court case has also reopened public discussion on a separate hazing incident involving Flathead football players that occurred over the summer.

Last week, Flathead County District Court Judge Katherine Curtis granted a preliminary injunction in favor of Connor Thomas, a senior at Flathead High, allowing him to return to the football team while he awaits further legal proceedings.

Thomas, 17, was one of four football players removed from the team after a marijuana-related incident involving the police on Sept. 22.

In her complaint, Thomas’ mother, Mary Thomas, argued that her son could face significant damages if his scholarship to Oregon State University, potentially worth more than $200,000, is revoked.

Thomas, a 6-5 and 265-pound all-state lineman, has verbally committed to play for OSU, where his older brother, Tyler, played until being dismissed from the team in August following a nationally publicized alcohol-related incident. The younger Thomas is also a standout wrestler.

“It’s kind of his life,” Mary Thomas said when describing the importance of sports for her son at a Sept. 29 hearing in district court.

Judge Curtis, in her ruling, said Thomas established “a constitutional right to participate in extracurricular activities and a clear infringement of that right” by the school district.

Curtis noted that there was no evidence suggesting the player consumed or possessed drugs, but was instead found to be in the presence of drugs. Only one of the four students in the vehicle received a citation, according to court records. Thomas was the driver.

In comparing the case to a similar one in Helena, Sullivan et al. v. Helena School District No. 1, Curtis said the plaintiff “has provided evidence that would belie the justification that simply being present with usage encourages usage.”

Curtis ruled that the school district, represented by Jeffrey Hindoien, “provided no evidence, testimony or facts” to support its case. Further claims by the plaintiff, including the merits of his equal protection arguments, will be considered at later court proceedings, Curtis said.

At the Sept. 29 hearing, Mary Thomas and School District 5 Superintendent Darlene Schottle each took the stand. In attendance were Flathead High School Activities Director Frank Jobe and Principal Peter Fusaro.

The plaintiff’s attorney Sean Hinchey questioned why Thomas was suspended when other players involved in a hazing incident over the summer were not. The hazing, which occurred at a football camp in Billings in June, made statewide headlines and has fueled an active rumor mill in Kalispell.

Schottle, in an interview, said the district’s policy did not apply to students involved in the hazing incident because it occurred in the offseason. The policy, she said, clearly states that students are subject to district sanctions only when official sports seasons are in session.

Once football practice began in August, the athletes would have been subject to punishment under the policy. But since the incident occurred in June, after the previous school year had ended, Schottle said the policy had no jurisdiction.

“They’re not part of a high school team,” Schottle said, adding that the athletes may not have even played once the season started. “To sanction them or remove them from a team, you cannot do that because they’re not on a team.”

Schottle said the athletes involved in the hazing were turned over to law enforcement and juvenile justice court, where punishments including parent meetings and community service were levied. No criminal charges were filed. Schottle said a football player from Glacier was disciplined for separate infractions at the camp.

Because of its relative gray area regarding offseason athletes, the extracurricular activities policy puts the district in a tricky situation, Schottle said. On one hand, the school still has responsibility for the students at a camp, but on the other hand the policy doesn’t allow for school-sanctioned punishment.

“How do you provide a consequence for an obviously inappropriate action?” she said.

The current substance-use policy was adopted by the school board in 2000 and revised in 2006. While players and families have questioned the policy before, Schottle said the Thomas case is the first time it’s been challenged legally.

Schottle said the district could look into possible policy changes. As of earlier this week, Schottle hadn’t yet met with the school board, but said the district often reviews its policies.

“I would be very surprised if this wasn’t one that we would at least examine to determine if changes are necessary,” Schottle said. “Changing policy can have some fairly significant implications across the board.”
On 10-24-10, mt_mama commented....
I agree..every time I hear this kid praised on the field, I want to vomit. What an embarrassment both Thomas boys are. Connor is following in big brother’s footsteps in more than one way. Any normal parent would be embarrassed instead of throwing money at it and being a spectacle.…
Kellyn Brown
Kellyn Brown6h
Governor Weighs in on Barry Beach Clemency Application | Flathead Beacon http://t.co/MPQ0KXsiEc
Dillon Tabish
Dillon Tabish9h
Grappling with Technology Demands, Kalispell Schools Seek Funding Boost http://t.co/cy4o52myFO
Molly Priddy
Molly Priddy7h
MT Gov. Steve Bullock sends letter to Parole Board, largely supportive of Barry Beach's petition for commutation of sentence. #mtpol
Tristan Scott
Tristan Scott12h
Meet the law firm behind W.R. Grace and scores of other notable Montana cases. http://t.co/PXTGJGoYdH
Flathead Beacon
FB Headlines6h
Governor Weighs in on Barry Beach Clemency Application http://t.co/fePORvxmT4