LOCKPORT – More than five years after varsity players were accused of bullying younger players on the Wilson High School baseball team, the lawsuit arising from that incident went to court Monday and was settled after half a day.
After opening statements to the jury and partial testimony by one of the three plaintiffs, the school’s attorneys made a deal instead of cross-examining the witness.
State Supreme Court Justice Richard C. Kloch Sr. ordered the terms of the settlement sealed and directed attorneys not to speak of it.
“This settlement is made with absolutely no admission of liability by the school district,” said David Adams of Hurwitz & Fine, one of the school’s attorneys. He declined to comment when a reporter asked him why the district settled.
In announcing the settlement, Kloch criticized the team’s coaches, William M. Atlas and Thomas J. Baia, who had been accused by the plaintiffs’ attorneys of not preventing the beating of junior varsity players on the team bus in April 2008.
James W. Grable of Connors & Vilardo, representing two JV players who said they were beaten, told the jury that Wilson had an anti-bullying policy but that the coaches allegedly didn’t know of it.
“In my opinion here, I believe the coaches here let down their players, and these young men lost their high school years,” Kloch said.
Mike Paul, a former spokesman for the coaches, called The Buffalo News and denounced Kloch.
“When an average attorney or a judge is involved in a sealed settlement, judges keep their mouths shut. For him to have said anything is unethical,” said Paul. “That clearly shows me this is a man who has an ego and wants his opinion known.”
One plaintiff, now 20, broke down on the witness stand, sobbing that the ostracism he received when he was blamed for blowing the whistle on three teammates made him want to kill himself.
“There were thoughts of suicide,” said the witness, a ninth-grader at the time.
That plaintiff, represented by attorney Christopher O’Brien, was not assaulted himself, but he said the only one of the alleged perpetrators who pleaded guilty told him “I was next in line.”
“If an adult had been sitting between them, this interchange could have been avoided,” another of the school’s attorneys, Andrea Schillaci, told the jury. But she contended Atlas put the policy into action by texting a report to the school athletic director the night of the second incident on the team bus.
The News is not using the names of the students involved in the 2008 incident. Three players were arrested and originally charged by State Police with sexually abusing the JV players. Atlas and Baia also were charged with endangering the welfare of a child for allegedly failing to prevent the attacks.
The Niagara County District Attorney’s Office eventually dropped the sexual abuse felonies and reduced the charges to misdemeanors of forcible touching and hazing.
In 2009, one player, now 23, pleaded guilty to child endangerment and was granted youthful offender status. The other two were tried behind closed doors by Wilson Town Justice George R. Berger and acquitted. The prosecution then dropped the charges against Baia and Atlas.
The following week, Connors & Vilardo filed civil suits against the school district, not the coaches, on behalf of two victims, who were in eighth grade in 2008. The parents of O’Brien’s client, who sought to protect the other two JV players, already had sued.
O’Brien’s client testified that his parents took him to a psychologist. “He saved my life. He saved my family’s life,” the young man sobbed.
But in fall 2008, he entered a 10th-grade math class and found one of the alleged perpetrators had been readmitted to school and seated next to him. “Horrible. I don’t know why they would do that,” the witness said. “There was no notification he was coming back to school.”
The parents of O’Brien’s client and the parents of the two victimized players removed their sons from Wilson High School. Two transferred to a Catholic high school in Buffalo, while the third family moved to Genesee County and placed the son in a public school. All have graduated.