Billings West High School

West High

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A Billings high school student-athlete who was suspended for part of the 2017 season was discriminated against based on his race, a lawsuit filed Friday in U.S. District Court argues.

A guardian of the West High student sued the district after the student was suspended for attending a party at which underage students were drinking alcohol last school year. The suit seeks $250,000 in damages.

The student was suspended for five games from the West High basketball team in January, according to the complaint. After the party, the student was questioned by a West High administrator who told the student that "he had a picture of him at the party where alcohol was involved but refused to show J.O. the picture."

Jeana Lervick, a lawyer for School District 2, said that the district has not been served with the lawsuit and learned about it from news reports Monday.  

The student acknowledged he was at the party but said that he left when he realized alcohol was being consumed, according to the lawsuit.

The administrator suspended the student for 25 percent of the season. The suit argues that the suspension was unfair due to a provision in the SD2 code of conduct, which generally prohibits students from consuming alcohol or being at parties where alcohol is being consumed:

"It is recommended that any student-participant who unknowingly enters a function in which illegal activity is taking place and subsequently recognizes the illegal activity, immediately leave the area and call their coach and their parents to report the situation. Student-participants who make the difficult choice to leave will not be subject to disciplinary action."

The suit also argues that the suspension was racially motivated: "School District employees knew that non-minority athletic participants were present at the same party, but these students were not suspended from participation in athletic events. J.O. was discriminated against and subjected to disparate treatment based upon his race."

The students' guardian, Connie Lar, who also is a Billings Gazette Communications employee, met with the administrator after the student met with the administrator. The administrator told Lar a video showed the student at the party, but that he refused to show Lar the video, according to the lawsuit.

The administrator told Lar the student should have notified a coach about the party, the lawsuit says. He did not ask Lar if the student notified her about the party, according to the suit.

Lar appealed the suspension to West High Principal Dave Cobb, who eventually told her that district administrators concluded that "they do not have enough evidence to overturn J.O.'s suspension," according to the complaint.

Cobb told Lar he knew J.O. was not drinking alcohol, the lawsuit says.

The student also should have been allowed to have another adult present when speaking with the administrator, but that information wasn't given to him, the suit argues.

It's unclear whether other students were disciplined for attending the party.

The plaintiff's lawyer, Kevin W. Roberts, is based out of Spokane. 

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.