I can see why attorneys for the Kern High School District have repeatedly tried to get a judge to issue a gag order to prevent all parties from speaking with me and my media colleagues about a troubling case that left a former Bakersfield High School student with a brain injury. The more you dig into this case, the more unflattering and embarrassing evidence you find against KHSD.
In 2010, then-18-year-old BHS senior and class President Mitch Carter did his part to boost school spirit by participating in a pep rally held in the gym. The big championship football game against Clovis West High School was coming up, so Carter agreed to dress up as the mascot of the opposing team as part of a skit to rile up the crowd.
Carter put on a chicken costume and walked out to the gym floor. According to attorney Ralph Wegis, two students rushed out of the stands and tackled him from behind, knocking Carter down.
Maybe this chicken thing isn't such a hot idea, thought Carter, but was pursuaded by BHS activity director Anna Lovan to continue, said Wegis. Despite having his chicken head costume knocked off, the class president went back out.
Video shows Carter playfully shoving one of the BHS football players. Then it gets ugly. A host of football players rush Carter, who is knocked down again as players form a dog pile. Video from two cell phones shows other students running out of the stands and joining in the "fun" as some strike blows with punches and kicks to Carter on the ground as the crowd roars its approval.
Cheerleaders join in the dog pile. This goes on for less than a minute, but I suppose when you're being assaulted and at the bottom of a dog pile, it may seem like an eternity. It's hard to see if any administrator or staff member intervenes as a bloodied Carter is eventually helped to his feet and makes his way out.
When my then-colleague Sabrina Rodriguez reported the story the day after and showed the video on TV, KHSD promised to clean up its act.
“This is unacceptable, we're not going to tolerate an assault on our campus under any kind of context," said then-KHSD spokesman John Teves.
A few days later, 11 students were suspended for their role. No staff or administrators were disciplined.
The incident left Carter more than shaken up physically. He never graduated from BHS, transfering to another school. Wegis contends Carter was ostracized and bullied after the incident because 11 students including football players were suspended.
The attorney claims Carter sustained a traumatic brain injury causing psychological issues including severe depression and anxiety. Once a student with 3.2 GPA, Carter today struggles in college having flunked 40 out of 74 courses.
Wegis filed a lawsuit in 2012 charging KHSD with negligence and wants KHSD to provide for Carter's ongoing medical costs.
What makes this worse and mind-boggling is that a very similar incident happened five years earlier at the same school with the same administrators being present, according to court documents. And a KHSD attorney tried to get that incident excluded as evidence from coming into play in the Carter case.
In 2005, then-English teacher Bob Stone and another teacher dressed up in a horse costume at another pep rally held at Griffith Field. Depicting the mascot of Stockdale High School, a mustang, the pair was led onto the field. Stone was blindsided by being tackled and knocked to the ground by several football players.
According to court transcripts, KHSD attorney Leonard Herr vehemently objected to having this episode brought up. The official record has Herr stating this in court: “I have spoken to Bob Stone. He said it has nothing to do with this incident. He said it was a mistake. He said that the -- a football player ran into him, they apologized, they gave him a jersey, it was a non-incident.”
Except it wasn't.
Turns out Stone suffered several severe injuries including five broken ribs, torn rotator cuff, torn bicep muscle, low back injury that resulted in bulging discs, a neck injury that required surgery and, according to court records, suffers from ongoing pain as a result of the non-incident.
He was left 30 percent disabled. KHSD compensated Stone, now retired, the whopping total of $40,000 for his injuries that was paid over a three-year period.
Wegis claims Herr intentionally misled the court by failing to mention Stone's injuries. In fact, a judge in 2014 ruled that the Stone incident could not be used in the Carter case.
But just last month, another judge made a new ruling based on the above information and the Stone episode is back in.
Calls made to Herr for comment were referred to Michael Kellar, the attorney now handling the case for KHSD. Kellar declined to comment, but issued a written statement that reads, “We are sorry that this incident happened to Mr. Carter...A dispute exists between these parties as to the nature and severity of the injuries that were sustained by Mr.Carter. The district continues its efforts to resolve this matter through negotiation.”
Kellar made a $1 million offer last month to settle the case but was rejected. The case is set to go to trial this week, and the latest attempt by KHSD to get a gag order was rejected last week.
I asked KHSD if it still condones the practice of having people dress up as opposing mascots at pep rallies. No comment, said Kellar.
Maybe that means no more mascots will be injured. But will anyone be held accountable?
Contributing columnist Jose Gaspar is a reporter for KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His work appears here every third Monday; the views expressed are his own.