Posted: Mar 3, 2014 11:57 AM
Updated: Mar 3, 2014 11:58 AM
WICHITA, Kan. (AP) For years, a Kansas military boarding school has quietly settled multiple lawsuits alleging cadet abuse outside of courtrooms.
This week, St. John's Military School goes to trial in federal court over claims made by 11 former students who contend its practice of giving higher-ranking cadets the power to discipline younger ones encourages physical and mental abuse.
The former cadets who hail from California, Florida, Tennessee, Colorado, Texas and Illinois filed a lawsuit in 2012 alleging that higher-ranking students, called "Disciplinarians," abused younger students, even in the presence of faculty members. The plaintiffs claim negligent failure to supervise, intentional failure to supervise, as well as both negligent and intentional emotional distress.
The 126-year-old Episcopalian boarding school in the central Kansas town of Salina has denied a culture of abuse exists, saying it is confident the jury will decide in its favor.
The trial, set to start Tuesday before U.S. District Judge John Lungstrum in Kansas City, Kan., could provide a rare public airing of the allegations against the private, quasi-military program. It is expected to last three weeks.
Plaintiffs have long contended that at least nine other abuse-related lawsuits have been filed against the school since 2006, but an Associated Press examination of federal and state court filings found at least 14 lawsuits filed since 2003 by cadets and their families.
Neither the school's president nor the attorney for the students returned email messages seeking comment Monday.
St. John's has noted that each student is required to sign an anti-hazing pledge and has cited its efforts to curb abuses by installing surveillance cameras and conducting regular bruise checks of students.
Among the plaintiffs in the lawsuit on trial is a boy from Auburn, Calif., who says he was tormented by adults and students after suffering two broken legs in separate incidents during the four days he attended the school in August 2012. Other alleged incidents include: a Tennessee student claiming his stomach was forcibly branded as a rite of initiation; a Texas boy who says he was urinated on in the shower; and an Illinois boy who says he suffered a fractured eye socket after being kneed in the head by a higher-ranking cadet.
Court filings in this lawsuit claim three former cadets have since been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder because of their experiences. Another tried to commit suicide, according to a filing, and hospital records cited in documents indicate the boy blamed depression on being hazed, bullied and harassed.
St. John's officials have claimed that some of the alleged abuses were fabrications, some were accidental injuries and others involved misconduct by the plaintiffs.
The school, which charges nearly $30,000 a year for students in grades 6 to 12, says many of the cadets who filed suit were dismissed or withdrew from the school in lieu of dismissal for failing to follow the rules. It has also criticized parents, saying they often look to blame the school for their sons' unwillingness to take advantage of opportunities at the school.
Lungstrum rejected the school's request to dismiss the case in January, ruling that a jury needed to resolve the question of whether the school implemented a system in which students imposed physical discipline on other students, and whether St. John's had noticed the discipline caused physical harm but failed to act.