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  1. Pinellas

Players accuse East Lake High baseball team of racial slurs, bullying, hazing

The allegations were made by two former players suing the Pinellas County School District for negligence — and failing to stop the harassment.
Published Jan. 31

Two former East Lake High School baseball players allege that their teammates made them the targets of racial slurs, bullying, harassment, hazing and "sexual depravity" — and their coaches did nothing to stop it.

That's why the two families sued the Pinellas County School Board.

The allegations were made in a negligence lawsuit filed against the school district by the players and their parents last week in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court. The two families — Charle King and his son Jay, 18; Shannon Norwood and her son Judah, 17 — are seeking more than $15,000 in damages.

Jay King and Judah Norwood addressed the school board about the allegations at Tuesday night's meeting.

"I'm not a liar," King told the board. "Everything I said is true. Hazing, sexual harassment and bullying did occur."

The school board members did not respond to the allegations.

King told the Tampa Bay Times that he had heard about the hazing before his senior season, but didn't believe what he had heard.

"They were telling me about it in the fall, and I thought it was a joke," he said. "I didn't take it serious until the day actually came up."

They said the harassment started after a practice before the start of the 2017-18 baseball season. The lawsuit said the two players — both new to the varsity team — were told by teammates to go into the woods near the school's baseball field to participate in a "hazing ritual" called the "Oreo Run."

The "Oreo Run" is where players are forced to race each other with a cookie between their buttocks — without adults present. The losers were then forced to eat the cookies, the lawsuit said.

King and Norwood refused to participate. When teammates tried to force Norwood to take part, the lawsuit said, he ran away and was chased by other players who tried to grab him while yelling insults. King threatened to call 911, the complaint said.

Norwood told the Times that he thought he knew their future teammates before the season started.

"I knew the whole team," Norwood said. "I played football, they knew me. It was good until that happened."

After both refused to participate in the "Oreo Run," they said the harassment escalated.

King and Norwood's teammates bullied and intimidated the players, according to the complaint, calling them the n-word throughout the season. "Plaintiffs even heard an assistant coach use this same offensive language," the lawsuit said.

The two players were also subject to "sexual depravity and harassment," the complaint said. For example, some teammates exposed themselves while stretching, the lawsuit said, and there were also allegations that players inappropriately touched each other in view of the coaches. The lawsuit does not state whether the two plaintiffs were inappropriately touched, however.

The lawsuit said King, Norwood and their families suffered anxiety, depression, insomnia and low self-esteem as a result of the "negligent supervision" of school district personnel and their failure to "adequately monitor and supervise" the baseball team.

"The school system is under a duty to supervise," said Todd Hoover, the attorney representing the families. "There was a lack of adequate supervision."

Both players transferred to other schools. Only King still plays baseball.

"Pinellas County Schools fully investigated the incident both internally and externally and found there was no negligence on the part of our staff," said school district spokesperson Lisa Wolf in a statement to the Times.

When asked if the school district specifically investigated the allegations of racial and sexual harassment made by the players, Wolf declined to answer.

"I am unable to comment further on pending litigation," she said in an email to the Times.

The school district refused to release all materials produced by its investigation into the players' complaints. Wolf said those materials are exempt from Florida's public records law.

East Lake baseball coach Zack Roper declined to comment.

Hoover said the school board hired a Lakewood Ranch law firm, Johns Eastern, to investigate his clients' allegations. King and Norwood were interviewed by phone, Hoover said, but they have not seen the results of the school board investigation. Johns Eastern did not return a call for comment Tuesday.

Times staff writer Rodney Page contributed to this report. Contact Kirby Wilson at kwilson@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8793. Follow @kirbywtweets.

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