Billings West High School

Billings West High School

Billings Public School trustees approved a $25,000 settlement for a lawsuit claiming that a West High athlete who was suspended for part of a 2017 season was racially discriminated against. 

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in 2017, was brought by a parent of a multiracial student and sought $250,000 in damages.

It stemmed from the five-game suspension of the athlete in January 2017 for attending a party where underage students were drinking alcohol.

In court filings, the district denied the suspension was discriminatory and argued the administrative actions were appropriate. 

The student acknowledged he was at the party but said he left after realizing alcohol was being consumed, according to the lawsuit. The district's response says the student said he did not leave the party. 

School administrators who investigated found that he remained at the party for "an appreciable length of time," said lawyer Mary E. Duncan, who represented the district. "He didn't notify anybody and he did not leave."

Duncan briefed trustees on the suit Tuesday before they discussed the settlement in closed session and then voted to approve it during open session. 

The plaintiff's lawyer, Spokane-based Kevin W. Roberts, did not respond to a Billings Gazette request for comment. 

After the party, the student was questioned by a West High administrator who told the student that "he had a picture of him at the party where alcohol was involved but refused to show (the student) the picture," the suit says. 

The district response also details the meeting and denied that "there is a legal obligation to allow the submission of 'evidence' in such a meeting."

The suit also details efforts of the student's parent, Connie Lar, to appeal the suspension. Lar is a Billings Gazette Communications employee.

The administrator told Lar a video showed the student at the party, but that he refused to show Lar the video, according to the lawsuit.

The administrator told Lar the student should have notified a coach about the party, the lawsuit says. He did not ask Lar if the student notified her about the party, according to the suit.

Lar appealed the suspension to then-West High Principal Dave Cobb, who eventually told her that district administrators concluded "they do not have enough evidence to overturn J.O.'s suspension," according to the complaint.

The district's filing acknowledges that meetings between Lar and administrators occurred, but disputes details. 

The district also said that "other students who violated the Code of Conduct were suspended from participation in athletic events" and denied that the student was discriminated against.

The suit claimed that "School District employees knew that non-minority athletic participants were present at the same party, but these students were not suspended from participation in athletic events."

It's unclear whether other students were disciplined for attending the party.

The district's initial effort to get the lawsuit dismissed were denied by U.S. Magistrate Judge Timothy Cavan on Aug. 10. A schedule issued by Cavan didn't set a trial date but set Oct. 18 of this year as a deadline for motions. 

Both sides had started to prepare for the discovery process before entering mediation leading to the settlement, Duncan said. No updates on the case had been posted since November in the federal court online filing system. 

The $25,000 is covered by the school district's insurance.

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