A Shakopee High School wrestler and his family told a federal judge Tuesday that the school’s effort to punish him — for something he says he didn’t do — is sabotaging his hopes of attending college on a sports scholarship.
Tyson Leon, 16, was indefinitely suspended from school sports in late August after sending a tweet that school officials said constituted a terroristic threat.
He denies threatening anyone, and in U.S. District Court in St. Paul on Tuesday, attorney Meg Kane argued that the suspension is a violation of her client’s constitutional rights.
The teenager has been wrestling on the varsity team since he was in seventh grade and the sport is his ticket to a Division I college, Kane said. Although he’s only in 11th grade and hasn’t been offered a scholarship yet, North Dakota State University has been scouting him since he was a sophomore, she said.
“The thing that has compelled him through high school and will compel him through college is participation in sports,” Kane told U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson.
Carla White, an attorney for the school district, countered that the indefinite suspension was only for the football season and was never meant to prevent Leon from wrestling with the team. Assistant Superintendent John Bezak and Athletic Director John Janke want to meet with the teen to discuss the school district’s and Minnesota State High School League’s rules that he will have to follow and for him to sign an agreement that he understands those rules.
Tweet or threat?
Leon’s latest troubles began in late August, when he was pulled off a bus headed to a football scrimmage. School officials said they had discovered a tweet in which he wrote “Im boutta drill my ‘teammates’ on Monday.”
After court Tuesday, Leon said “drilling” means to tackle someone, hard. That’s what he was talking about when he sent the tweet, he said.
He and his parents are suing the State High School League and its executive director and Shakopee schools and district officials.
“They’re trampling [students’] constitutional rights,” Kane said after the hearing Tuesday. “It’s a widespread problem with lots of families complaining about it. Nobody wants to go on the record because they’re afraid their children will be retaliated against.”
It was welcome news to Leon and his family that the school is ready to let Leon return to the ring.
“At first they told me I wasn’t ever able to play sports again,” Leon said outside the courtroom. “Then in there they said all I had to do was sign a piece of paper. I was pretty happy about that.”
The judge ordered the attorneys for the district and the league to prepare the agreement before a settlement conference scheduled for Wednesday.
Leon admits that he hasn’t exactly been an angel, but said he’s learned from his mistakes.
He’s had three previous suspensions from his sports: the first after a verbal altercation with a teacher in December 2011; another for a fight with a peer away from school in July 2012, and a third for “chemical use” at a party last January. He served 12-game suspensions for the latter two incidents.
His mother, Barb Bainer, said she and his father, Montgomery Leon, didn’t appeal those suspensions “because Tyson did get in trouble and we felt he needed to do his punishment.”
The alleged fourth violation, however, was different.
Head coach Jody Stone and Janke met the boy in a conference room, closed the door and began interrogating him, according to Kane and Leon’s family.
“Neither … Janke nor Stone informed T.L.’s parents of their intent to interrogate T.L.,” the lawsuit said. “T.L. did not feel free to leave because of … Janke and Stone’s position as school officials.”
Stone and Janke initially told Leon that they had evidence that he had used “chemicals” during a recent football retreat, the lawsuit said.
On Aug. 26, during a meeting with Leon and his parents, Stone and Janke produced a printed copy of Leon’s tweet about drilling his teammates, the lawsuit said. They said nothing more about the allegations of chemical use. A letter to the family dated Aug. 29 didn’t mention the chemical use either, but said Leon’s behavior violated school and league rules and that he was indefinitely suspended.
Kane said that playing sports is clearly a “property right” and Leon was given no avenues of appeal. The school officials unlawfully accessed the boy’s private Twitter, e-mail and Facebook accounts, she said.
On Tuesday, White pointed out that the suspension resulted from Leon’s fourth violation and that he and his family received a letter after his third violation reminding them that violations are cumulative and could cost him his eligibility.
“Every single school administrator who read [the tweet] believed that he was threatening harm,” White said.
The judge questioned why, if administrators truly believed that the tweet was a threat, police weren’t called to the school.
“They did believe it was a threat,” White said. “They did believe it was going to happen on Monday. They took care of it.”