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'6-figure settlement' in prep wrestling bullying case

Jun. 25, 2014
 
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Wisconsin Rapids High School wrestling coaches Lewie and Scott Benitz. / File/Gannett Wisconsin Media

The insurer for the Wisconsin Rapids School District has agreed to a “six-figure” settlement to end a harassment and discrimination lawsuit brought by a bullied Wisconsin Rapids High School wrestler against the district, district officials and coaches.

The wrestler, now 19, whom Gannett Wisconsin Media is not naming because he is a victim of a crime, alleged he was bullied and harassed when he was a ninth-grade student at East Junior High School wrestling on the high school team during the 2010-11 school year.

He will receive a “six-figure settlement,” his attorney Christine Bremer Muggli said Tuesday.

“I’m not mentioning the (amount of) money because that’s what my client wants. It was never about the money, although that’s how things are validated in our society now, but (my client) wanted to come forward with his complaint about the bullying and harassment in order to give hope and confidence to others who also are bullied,” Muggli said in a phone interview.

The boy was humiliated, had lost all confidence in himself after being subjected to sexual abuse by teammates and transferred to Port Edwards High School after a year at Wisconsin Rapids, Muggli said.

Since then, he has graduated from the Wisconsin School for the Deaf and has a scholarship to a leading university for the deaf, Muggli said.

The boy’s complaints about the harassment he suffered resulted in the school district reviewing its policies, not rehiring two coaches, implementing increased supervision of wrestlers and giving anti-bullying messages to coaches and students.

“It was (my client’s) courage in coming forward that led to these changes and hopefully will begin to rebuild the reputation of the wrestling program that has been so important to this community,” Muggli said.

Four wrestlers initially were charged with criminal disorderly conduct and eventually reached plea agreements. Rylan L. Lubeck, 20, of Vesper, pleaded no contest to obstructing an officer. Zachary S. Benitz, 21, of Wisconsin Rapids, the son of wrestling coach Scott Benitz; Devin L. Peterson, 20, of Wisconsin Rapids; and Kasey D. Einerson, 20, of Nekoosa, all pleaded no contest to misdemeanor disorderly conduct. Lubeck’s case has since been erased. The charges against Benitz and Einerson were dismissed after they met specified requirements. All four have since graduated from high school.

School superintendent Colleen Dickmann declined to comment Tuesday on the settlement and the dismissal of the teenager’s federal suit on June 16, stating only, “This settlement reached by the insurance company on behalf of the school district is in the best interests of all parties and brings this matter to a close.”

A call to the attorney hired by the Community Insurance Corp. to represent the school district was not returned by deadline.

According to the teenager’s complaint:

The Wisconsin Rapids wrestling team developed a reputation for success by winning 21 team state championships including 16 in the past 18 years. However, the wrestling program also fostered an “above all else” culture and was not expected to answer to administrators.

Lewie Benitz had been head coach for 41 years until his son Scott succeeded him in 2010. Lewie Benitz stayed on as an assistant coach with other coaching positions filled by Scott’s brother Shane Benitz; Scott’s cousin Dennis Nelson; Justin Tritz, Shawn Brehm, Ben Jahnke and Pete Poeschl.

While head coach, Lewie Benitz had received written reprimands from the school district for taking a student out of school to help him make weight before a match and holding practice on an in-service day, both violations of school policy.

In 1994, Lewie Benitz received a written reprimand for using force against a wrestler who had lost a regional competition. The reprimands pointed out district concerns that Benitz seemed to be above the rules.

In 2010-11, the team had four or five wrestlers, two of whom were a son or nephew of the coaches, who were groomed to be “elite wrestlers” and treated differently than their teammates.

The “elite wrestlers” had finished in the top three places at state meets in previous years and dictated to coaches how they were to be trained rather than coaches dictating the difficulty of training.

In their dispositions, the coaches admitted that locker room supervision was inadequate after practices when the boy in the lawsuit wrestled for Wisconsin Rapids. None of the coaches could recall being assigned that duty.

Not until after the boy transferred to Port Edwards High School did locker room supervision of athletes become a guideline, Dickmann said in her deposition.

Supervision of wrestlers also was lax on team bus rides to away matches and at hotels during overnight stays. Coaches did monitor hotel hallways between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. to see whether wrestlers stayed in their rooms at that time.

Coaches knew the “elite wrestlers” had disciplinary problems, including one wrestler who was cited by police for throwing dead pigeons at cars. Another wrestler was cited by police in 2009 for causing contusions to a student’s head and asking him to admit to performing a sex act.

Ryan Christianson, the high school principal at the time, had conversations with Scott Benitz about the incident and not wanting the wrestlers’ poor behavior to reflect badly on the school or the team.

Coaches also knew about reports of their wrestlers being videotaped while wrestling naked.

The boy who filed the lawsuit was a 5-foot-1, 115-pound freshman in 2010 who wore hearing aids and glasses to overcome sight and hearing impairments. He also had chorea, a movement disorder. He wrestled from third to seventh grades in Wausau and moved to Wisconsin Rapids after his parents divorced.

The boy had an Individualized Education Program to accommodate his disabilities in the classroom, but wrestling coaches never asked about the full extent of his limitations.

Christianson said in a deposition that he would expect that coaches would be told of the information contained within an IEP.

The boy was assigned an interpreter to assist him in the classroom during the 2010-11 school year . He was not assigned one for wrestling, though another deaf wrestler on the team had an interpreter.

The boy couldn’t wrestle with his hearing aids or glasses and did not complain about not having an interpreter at some practices. He was just pleased to be wrestling on the renowned Wisconsin Rapids team.

Much of the harassment occurred in the locker room, where wrestlers walked around naked, whipping each other with towels, grabbing others’ genitals, a practice called “sack tapping,” and pulling on others’ pubic and chest hair.

The boy was intentionally grabbed by the genitals during practices, but the coaches did nothing to stop it.

Coaches told wrestlers only to stop the behavior and did not discipline them when the behavior continued despite the verbal warnings.

A referee expressed concerns to coach Scott Benitz about welts on wrestlers from apparent towel whippings, but Benitz only told the wrestlers not to attend weigh-ins or meets with visible welts.

In December 2010, the boy was surrounded in a shower by teammates who urinated on him. Most of the team members continued to urinate on the boy in incidents that occurred as the season progressed.

Other times, the “elite wrestlers” surrounded the boy in the locker room and danced naked, whipping their penises against his leg. The incident was reported to by a non-wrestler to assistant coach Jahnke, who dismissed it as “boys being boys.”

The school district did not follow up on the report.

The boy’s classroom interpreter, Abby McDougall, and the boy’s father reported the harassment and emotional and physical abuse to school officials, but their response failed to halt the anti-social behavior, forcing the boy to transfer out of the district.

Filed by Daily Tribune Media of Wisconsin Rapids

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