What should have been a playful skit turned into a bloody brawl at Bakersfield High School in 2010.
Now, as the case plays out in civil court, defense attorneys say that Mitchell Carter — the then-class president who donned a chicken costume to rile up a crowd before a big football game — is responsible for what happened that day when a mob of students rushed out from the stands and piled on top of him. They kicked, punched and beat him as he lay on the gym floor.
Carter sustained a traumatic brain injury, and now contends with psychological issues, anxiety and depression, his lawyers have said. Carter's mother said he'd become “dark and angry” after the incident, and “not the young man” she raised.
“What transpired at the rally … was not planned, was not approved by anyone in a position of authority at the high school,” lead defense attorney Michael Kellar said during opening arguments held in Kern County Superior Court Thursday. “Mr. Carter volunteered to wear that chicken suit.”
But Joseph H. Low, an attorney representing Carter in his suit against the Kern High School District, said KHSD was negligent and ignored its legal obligation to provide a “safe, secure and peaceful” environment for students that day.
In the fervor of a regional football championship, Carter did what he was asked by the school activities coordinator, Anna Lovan, Low said. He went out to raise the spirits of the crowd while wearing a costume meant to mock the opposing team's mascot.
Carter was tackled during the first rally, then protested going out again for a subsequent rally the same day. But Lovan told him that if he didn't, he'd be paying the $75 rental fee for that costume, Low said during his opening statement. Kellar later refuted that.
“'You're going to be safe, nobody's going to touch you. I've instructed the football team not to lay a hand on you,'” Low said Lovan told Carter. “You can imagine the parents are a little upset now.”
Defense attorneys Thursday focused on the kid Carter shoved, Cory Wood, whom the defense would describe as “an honorary football player” thought of as a “little brother” by the team. He's the one Carter is seen shoving in the now viral video that sparks the dog pile.
It's only when Carter began to run toward him at a full charge during the skit, defense attorneys said, that the student body rose up to defend a boy that they said was “special needs.”
But Wood's mother, who testified Thursday, refuses to refer to her child as “special needs.” He just has a speech impediment, she said.
Kellar wouldn't comment after Thursday's proceedings on the validity of Wood's mother stating that he's not a special needs student, but said that his mother “probably isn't the best person” to testify about that.
While on the stand, Cory Wood spurned the insinuation that he was a special education student, and said that he graduated with a 3.96 GPA in the top 10 percent of his class. He attended every football practice, every game, and said he wasn't an “honorary member” — but he wasn't in the first string either.
Wood called Carter “a brother” with whom he shared a “spiritual bond.”
“If you couldn't tell by now, I stutter,” Wood said, adding that he got picked on when he was a kid. But not by Carter. It was Carter who had stood up for him since he was in third grade, Wood said.
And that skit, including the “fake” tackle, is something that Wood and Carter dreamed up during “a powwow” before the pep rally, Wood said.
Low said during his opening statement that this incident should have been avoided. It had happened before. He pointed to injuries sustained by BHS teacher Bob Stone in 2005 when, during a pep rally similar to the one in 2010, he put on the costume of a rival sports team and was tackled by the football team. Lovan was the activities director at the time, he said.
During depositions, Lovan said that the football team “brushed past” Stone and “knocked him down,” in 2005, Low said.
But Carter's sister, Allyson Jones, said on the stand it was more violent than that. Football players “attacked” the two teachers inside the mustang mascot costume, jumping on the teachers, kicking them and landing on them with all their weight, “and football players weigh a lot,” she said.
Those football players “are like gods at BHS,” Jones said. “They're worshipped.”
Kellar called the entire incident in 2005 a coincidence, and that some players “collided” unintentionally with the mascot, which was “prancing near the tunnel” as players ran into the stadium.
After Carter got back home from school that day in 2010 after the pep rally, his father rushed to campus to find out what happened. His son could not speak clearly at the time and was having trouble forming sentences, Carter's mother said.
When they met with Keith Powers, the Kern High School District's campus police officer at BHS, he told them they could start an investigation the following Monday, Low said.
When asked if the family could press charges in what they described as an “assault,” Powers said that wasn't an option, Carter's mother testified.
The trial resumes Monday.