January 6, 2012 12:00:00 PM
By HOLBROOK MOHR
JACKSON -- Members of a south Mississippi high school baseball team participated in a hazing ritual that left one teenager hospitalized after being held from behind and punched in the chest, according to a lawsuit filed by the player's parents.
The lawsuit claims that for at least two years, older baseball players at Picayune Memorial High School have routinely singled out younger, smaller players and punched them "violently in the chest" before games.
The lawsuit was filed by Jeffrey Dixon Sr. and Amy Dixon, parents of 15-year-old Jeffrey Dixon Jr. The suit says the boy suffered a seizure and was hospitalized in April 2011, allegedly after a hazing ritual before Picayune Memorial played a home game against Lumberton High School.
Named as defendants by the lawsuit are the Picayune School District, baseball coach Cayne Stockstill, three team members identified only with initials and 10 John Does. The lawsuit was originally filed Nov. 22 in Pearl River County Circuit Court, but the school district filed motions in late December to have it moved to U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi. The school district's filing said, among other things, the plaintiffs' claims invoke questions of federal law.
Picayune is a city of about 10,800 in Pearl River County, about 50 miles northeast of New Orleans. Like many small towns in the South, it's a place where high school sports is king. The Picayune High football team won the Class 5A state championship this past year. The baseball team has a history of high-caliber play, and won the state championship in 2002. That year the Maroon Tide was ranked No. 4 in USA Today's national poll.
Kent Kirkland, the school's current principal, was the baseball coach when Stockstill was a student and player in the 1990s. Stockstill then served as Kirkland's assistant coach before taking over when Kirkland became principal.
Brenda Long, the lawyer representing the school district and Stockstill, said she had only recently become involved in the case and would not comment.
Brent Harrell, an assistant superintendent, said Thursday that because of the pending litigation, he could not discuss the allegations in the lawsuit or whether hazing has occurred at the school.
However, in a routine legal paper commonly filed in response to lawsuits in federal court, the district denied the allegations.
Neither the Dixons nor their attorney, Damon Carpenter, would comment on the lawsuit.
But according to the complaint, one of the players singled out Dixon Jr., who was then a freshman, and urged others to assault him. Another teen allegedly held the boy's arms behind his back while a third player punched him in the chest.
The parents claim the punch happened when the players were huddled together in a circle on the field, but was so hard it could be heard in the stands. They said they saw the boy fall after a group of players scattered when their son was in convulsions. The boy also suffered cuts to his face when he fell, the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit also claims that rather than concentrating on the injured player before he was taken to a hospital, the coach "instead consoled his starting pitcher ... who had been the perpetrator of the vicious assault."
The boy was taken to Ochsner North Shore Hospital in Slidell, La., and treated for the seizure, facial lacerations and a chest injury. He also needed follow-up medical treatment, the lawsuit said.
The pitcher went on to play for the team in the remaining games, but the Dixons' suit says their son finished the school year at home and then changed schools due to the "hostile environment."
The lawsuit charges gross negligence, assault and battery, infliction of emotional distress, false imprisonment, conspiracy, civil rights violations and negligent supervision. It seeks unspecified damages.
The civil rights allegation claims the coach and the school district failed to use their positions of authority to stop ongoing abuse.
"Defendants Cayne Stockstill and Picayune School District intentionally and willfully refused to take action to prevent ongoing hazing conduct at high school baseball games, despite having actual knowledge of a pattern of such hazing conduct," the lawsuit said.
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