Attorneys representing the Hesperia Unified School District and Oak Hills High School in a hazing lawsuit have pinpointed evidence they seek to prevent from being introduced at trial, considering it unfairly prejudicial or irrelevant, court records show.
The trial is expected to begin in mid-February with jury selection.
In several motions filed at the end of October and the beginning of November, attorneys request that legal counsel for the plaintiff, Josh Villegas, a former Oak Hills High freshman football player, be precluded from making reference to alleged hazing or bullying; questioning prospective jurors about the dollar amount of potential damages; referring to media reports; or asking open-ended "possibility" questions, records show.
Court documents also reveal that the defense counsel wants plaintiff attorneys to generally refrain from making any opening statement unsupported by the evidence in the case, offering the following as an example:
"In the subject lawsuit it is alleged that John VZ Doe was a victim of hazing by upperclassmen from the Oak Hills High School Football team," one document filed in county court reads. "However the perpetrators could not be identified. Therefore, it is nothing more than a surmise, speculation, and guess as to the identities of the assailants."
Defense attorneys said that because no evidence will show alleged assailants were members of the football team, then "any reference or suggestion that the assault was done by members of the team as part of an ongoing ritual hazing" should be excluded.
Further, they wish to exclude the opinion by the plaintiff counsel's expert witness Dr. Susan Lipkins, a professional psychologist and expert on hazing, as it pertains to attorney Dennis G. Popka's handling of plaintiff requests in the case. Popka represents the school district and Oak Hills High.
Lipkins had testified that Popka stymied requests and that his behavior was purportedly atypical of most school districts and attorneys with whom she works, who typically seek to submit as much paperwork as possible to underscore that they tried to investigate the claims that had been raised.
"I feel that the way that Mr. Popka ... handled this was to support the code of silence and support the way that the rest of the school handled it, like giving absolutely no paperwork, nothing relevant, not indicating that anything actually happened," Lipkins testified, according to a partial transcript from her deposition. "In — I believe that Mr. Popka and others would like to say, 'Well, maybe the sodomization that happened in the urinal didn't actually happen.' And I would like to say, 'Well, maybe the investigation really didn't happen,' because there's no documentation.'"
She even suggested the District Attorney's office declined to prosecute the case based on the supposedly thin paperwork.
The defense counsel argued that Lipkins' objections related to confidential school records of students other than the plaintiff, which precluded the district from producing them without a court order or consent of the other students' parents or guardians. Ultimately, they said, Lipkins' comments are irrelevant and ignore rules imposed on the district.
Defense attorneys also object to other, seemingly more innocuous, subjects being broached during trial, including references to students' or staff's use of profanity and suggestions that a student or his parents were selling moonshine to others, records show.
In summer 2014, Villegas' mother filed a lawsuit against the district and school, claiming her son had been subjected to sexual hazing rituals while on the freshman football team in 2013. The complaint contends that coaches and others at the school created an environment in which abuse by older football players against younger ones was commonplace.
Villegas offered his identity and story to ESPN for a program that aired in September. He has alleged that, on one occasion, he was held down while in the locker room by others and that fingers were inserted into his rectum.
Shea Johnson can be reached at 760-955-5368 or SJohnson@VVDailyPress.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DP_Shea.