July 13, 2016 | By McCathern Law
WACO, TX — Authorities want to know how a 12-year-old girl ended up with a severe rope burn around her neck during an overnight campout with her sixth-grade classmates.
But the child and her mother believe they already know. The girl is black and attends a mostly white private school near a flourishing part of downtown. They believe she was the victim of a racially motivated attack, the culmination of months of bullying by her classmates.
“It looked like somebody had ripped her neck apart and stitched it back together,” the girl’s mother, Sandy Rougely, said in an interview with The Dallas Morning News this week as she sat next to her daughter in their Waco apartment.
Live Oak Classical School said in a statement that the girl’s injuries were “caused accidentally” while the students — eight girls and 14 boys — were playing with a rope swing attached to a tree. The girl was one of two black students on the trip.
The school contends the girl’s lawyer is using race to take advantage of an accident for financial gain.
The grammar school dean, Allison Buras, who went on the campout, did not respond to a request for comment. Instead, a member of the board of directors, Jeremy Counseller, emailed a statement to The News.
It said, in part, that “the student and some of her classmates were playing with a swing and an attached pull-rope on a field trip. The student received first aid treatment immediately after the accident by a parent chaperone who is also a physician, and she was able to enjoy the remainder of the field trip, which lasted through the next day. Live Oak takes the safety of its students seriously and is saddened that one of its family suffered an unfortunate accident and injury.”
The statement also said the attorney is trying to “exploit” the 100th anniversary “of the lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco.” The statement said the girl’s attorney, Levi McCathern, who also represents the Dallas Cowboys, asked the school to pay $2.7 million or he would make the allegations public.
This month marks 100 years since the most notorious lynching in Texas. In what’s known as “the Waco Horror,” a white mob snatched 17-year-old Washington from the McLennan County courthouse just after he was convicted of the murder and rape of a white woman a week earlier. The mob, dressed in suits and hats, threw a chain around Washington’s neck, dragged him through the streets and then tossed him onto a bonfire.
Jones said they based the figure on living expenses plus private school through 12th grade, college for the girl and her plans to pursue a law or medical degree.
None of the chaperons called the child’s mother about the injury, and none of the adults saw the children as they played on the swing and or the incident, the girl and her mother said. One of the parents, the doctor, examined her neck. The staff covered it in Vaseline and gave her ibuprofen, the girl said.
The school did not respond to follow-up questions asking why no one called the girl’s mother. The News is not identifying Rougely’s daughter or any of the other children on the late April camping trip at a private ranch between Johnson City and Fredericksburg.
Waco police referred the case Gillespsie County authorities, but the sheriff there said it should be investigated by officials in Blanco County, where the ranch is located. No one has been accused of a crime.
‘I think it was on purpose’
“For Live Oak to bury their head in the sand and chalk this incident up to ‘kids being kids’ is irresponsible but, unfortunately, all too common,” said McCathern. “Their tone-deaf approach reflects an attitude that our client’s injury was not worth investigating or even informing her mother about.”
Rougely said she didn’t know about the injury until her daughter walked off the bus the following night in the school parking lot. From afar, Rougely thought her daughter wore a necklace.
The school’s statement also said: “The lawyer claimed that the student’s injuries were racially motivated, intentional attack. Live Oak takes this accusation seriously. The school interviewed all student eyewitnesses and teachers who were present and each independently established that the accusation made by the attorney is absolutely false. The injuries were caused accidentally while the students were playing with the swing and attached pull rope. The attorney was advised of the results of the interviews.”
But Jones countered: “I don’t know how you can look at her neck, at the pictures and think this was anything but intentional.” But he said even if what occured was an accident, the way the school handled the situation was “beyond poor.”
The girl said she doesn’t understand how it could have been an accident. When the kids let go of the rope, it fell to the ground, she said.
“That’s why I think it was on purpose,” she said, fidgeting with her hands. “I think someone tried to tie it around my neck.”
The rope swing
On April 28, the first day of the campout, all the kids played with a rope swing after a day of hiking and swimming, the girl said. One or two kids fit into seat made of rope and the rest of the class pulled another rope to swing it like a pendulum in any direction.
The girl said she helped swing other kids and then she stopped to watch. She didn’t feel anything except the rope going around her neck from behind. The rope pulled against her neck. She fell to the ground and was tugged backward.
None of the students helped her, the girl said, so she removed the rope. Small pieces of rope were embedded in her neck.
She looked back and saw three boys — all of them white — who she said had been picking on her.
“Guys, did you do that on purpose?” the girl said she asked them
“No. Why would we do that on purpose?” she said one of the boys responded.
A photo from the trip posted to the school’s Facebook page shows all the kids smiling in their green or white polo shirts with the school logo. The injury is visible around the girl’s neck.
The incident occurred after several students bullied the girl for most of this school year, according the mother and copies of emails between her and Buras. The girl and her mother said that students pushed, kicked and made fun of her. The daughter attended the school in the fifth grade and had no problems, mother and daughter said.
Rougely said the year went downhill when she pointed out the bullying to Buras. Then, emails show, the dean emailed her about problems the girl had socializing with others. Rougely said she didn’t receive those types of messages before she complained.
A ‘rope burn’
On April 30, the day after the kids returned from the campout, Buras emailed Rougely.
“Sandy,” Buras wrote. “I just wanted to check on [your daughter]. Did you take her to the doctor. How is she? We were glad to have a doctor on our trip who could check her out or we also might have felt a need to take her in. I remember getting rope burns as a child and they are not fun! I hope she is doing OK.”
Rougely said her daughter’s injuries can’t be explained by a “rope burn.”
She said she took her daughter to the emergency room the night the students returned from the trip. Doctors performed a CT scan of the girl’s spine because her neck and shoulders hurt. The doctor prescribed prescription antibiotic ointment, ibuprofen and an inhaler.
There, a Waco police officers took a report and photos of the child’s injuries.
Blanco County sheriff’s Lt. Jay Ablon said Thursday that the sheriff’s department had not yet been informed of the case. But he expressed interest in learning how a rope ended up around the girl’s neck.
“That would be concerning,” Ablon said.
Rougely, a single mother, has removed her daughter from school. Jones arranged for the girl to complete work at home so she can complete the school year, which ends this month. Tuition to the school is about $7,000 a year, which was paid for with a scholarship and a low-interest loan, Rougley said.
Previously, the girl attended Waco public schools, and Rougely believed her daughter deserved a better education because teachers frequently left and the kids didn’t appear to learn much.
Rougely and her daughter said there were four black students and no full-time black teachers at Live Oak. She wants Buras fired and the teachers from the campout reprimanded.
“I think there was prejudice at the root of all of this. I didn’t want to say it at first. I didn’t want to see it like this, in this way,” Rougely said. “But as I go back and think about the different things that were going on and occurring in the school year, that’s all I can see.
“And nobody did anything about it.”
By Jennifer Emily, Dallas Morning News, Published May 19, 2016