Live Oak Classical School in Waco, Tex., is facing a $3 million lawsuit from the family of one of its only black students after a 12-year-old girl returned from a class trip with lacerations around her neck. The wound, the suit claims, was allegedly caused by a group of students wrapping a rope around her and dragging her to the ground.
On the morning of Friday, Apr. 29, Sandy Rougely, a black woman living in Waco, drove to the Live Oak parking lot to pick her daughter up from an overnight field trip at Germer Ranch in Blanco County, about a two-and-a-half hour drive away from the school.
At first, when Rougely saw her daughter, she noticed what appeared to be a necklace around her neck that she didn't remember her daughter leaving with. When Rougely was able to see her daughter up close, however, she was horrified to discover that what she'd actually seen was a deep tear in the skin around the front of her daughter's throat. She said that her daughter's neck looked like it "had been ripped open and stitched back together."
At no point during the trip, Live Oak would eventually confirm, had any of the seven adult chaperones contacted Rougely about daughter being hurt. Following the trip, Rougely pulled her daughter out of the school.
When Rougely asked what happened, the girl told her mother that three other children, all of them white boys, had wrapped a rope around her neck and dragged her along the ground, causing a severe rope burn that cut deep into her skin. Alarmed, Rougely took her daughter to the nearest emergency room to have the wounds examined.
According to Rougely's lawyer, Levi McCathern, local police officers happened to be at the same ER, and were initially concerned about whether the girl was being abused. After hearing Rougely's story, however, they advised that she go and file an official police report.
"My first question was, 'How in the world could you have something like this happening and you don't even investigate whether or not it actually happened,'" McCathern told me by phone. "Even with all of these questions, [Live Oak] didn't go out and launch an investigation until I contacted them."
Rougely's lawsuit against Live Oak and Larry Germer, the owner of the ranch where the incident occurred, describes the private school as inattentive to the mother's growing concerns that her daughter was being bullied by her classmates—a pattern that peaked, Rougley claims, when her daughter arrived at the ranch and came across an old-fashioned swing hanging from the branch of a tree.
"The swing was a single rope, with one end tied to a branch of the tree, and the other end holding a circular seat that a child would sit in," the claim describes. "There were several children all taking turns sitting on the swing, while the other children pulled the rope."
At some point during the game, Rougely's daughter, one of only two black children on the trip of 22 students, was no longer helping to pull the swing or taking a ride herself. When she stepped away from the group, McCathern told me, three white boys violently wrapped the pull-rope used to tug the swing around her neck, dragging her to the ground. When the girl looked up, the suit claims, a boy who had allegedly bullied her before stood among her attackers.
After pulling herself up off the ground and unraveling the rope from her neck, the girl took off running to find an adult. The first person she found, the lawsuit claims, was Allison Buras, the school's principal who is also ranch owner Larry Germer's daughter. She brought the girl to another chaperone with nursing experience, who applied Vaseline to the wound.
When I spoke with David Deaconson, Live Oak's defense attorney, he told me that none of the chaperones on the trip contacted Rougely about the incident because it didn't appear to be all that serious.
"The protocol of the school at that time was that parents would be contacted if it was a type of injury that the chaperone thought was serious," Deaconson said. "Have you ever had a rope burn? When the ropes go fast, they can break the skin, you know?"
When pressed, Deaconson described a scene in which the rope became tangled around Rougely's daughter's neck in a freak accident involving another child riding the swing and the girl standing in the way until the swing came back around, wrapping itself around her neck in the process.
McCathern said that the severity of the girl's wounds, and her claim that none of the other kids attempted to help her, make it impossible to believe the school's assertion that what happened was an accident.
While Deaconson agreed that what happened to the girl was unfortunate, he insisted that it was merely an instance of kids' fun getting out of hand.
Rougely and McCathern say that the rope incident was the culmination of months of bullying that the young girl endured, all while the school responded inadequately.
The girl was first enrolled at Live Oak in 2014, with Rougely paying the $7,000 a year tuition with a partial scholarship and loans. Live Oak promises "a Christian classical education" with small class sizes "to foster individualized instruction and to enhance learning opportunities." According to the most recently available data, fewer than 350 students attended all of Live Oak, which offers K–12 education. Rougely said she made the decision to put her daughter in the school in the hope of giving the girl a better education than the Waco public school system could provide.
But the girl's experience at school, the family claims, soon took a turn for the worse. According to Rougely's lawsuit, the bullying her daughter experienced prompted her to repeatedly email the school seeking solutions. Rougely claims that Live Oak was only concerned with the "symptoms of the bullying, rather than the problem," and that Buras, the school's principal, went as far as making pointed critiques of the girl's intelligence and demeanor.
On Nov. 17, 2015, Sandy Rougely sent principal Allison Buras an email about an alleged incident involving Rougely’s daughter and one of the white students she would later accuse of wrapping a rope around her neck. In the email, Rougely asked Buras what, if anything, the school did after her daughter was pushed to the ground and kicked by the boy on two separate occasions.
"It sounds like he may have pushed on the back of her leg to make her leg buckle, which is something the kids sometimes do," Buras responded in an email of her own. "Rarely is that done out of meanness but more out of a desire for sport."
McCathern said that Buras' email downplayed just how serious a problem the teasing actually was, adding that Rougely's daughter experienced multiple negative interactions with this student that made the girl feel uncomfortable and unwelcome at the school.
In the months following the alleged bullying from this white student, teachers at Live Oak began corresponding with Rougely about her daughter's withdrawn behavior in class.
"Occasionally I can get her to smile but it is rare. Socially, she does not interact with her classmates," Live Oak science teacher Melinda Johnson wrote in one email. "She does not seem inhibited to ask questions, however, she often articulates those questions in a slow methodical way. Processing seems very slow."
Emails like Johnson's, McCathern told me, reflect the sort of culture at Live Oak that Rougely had to deal with ever since her daughter enrolled in the predominantly white, Christian private school.
"If it had been one of those kids on a full-rate tuition, the parent would have been notified immediately," McCathern said, referring to the rope incident. "But she's being held to a different standard. They're not treating these kids the same."
When asked about the suit's claims that Rougely's daughter had been bullied multiple times before the field trip, Live Oak lawyer Deaconson would only acknowledge one "incident"—when the white student kicked the girl in November 2015.
Deaconson said that, more than anything else, Rougely's legal team is trying to racialize what happened to her daughter during the overnight trip in an attempt to curry favor from the public. He specifically brought up the fact that the incident involving the swing and the rope coincided with the 100th anniversary of the lynching of Jesse Washington, one of the most high-profile, racially motivated lynchings in Texas history.
On May 15, 1916, Jesse Washington, a black man, was lynched in Waco after confessing to having raped and murdered the white wife of his employer. While there were no eyewitnesses to the crime, the McLennan County sheriff was able to procure a signed confession from the man that described the location of the attack and the weapon he used.
While there was evidence that Washington was guilty of the crime, the way that Waco handled the case has gone down in history as a textbook example of a predominantly white town giving itself over to racist hysteria—with gruesome consequences.
After just four minutes of deliberation, Washington was sentenced to death by hanging, but as he was being escorted out of the courthouse by police officers, the mob of Waco residents that had gathered to watch the trial took hold of him, stripped him naked, wrapped a chain around his neck, and dragged him to City Hall. As he was being dragged, members of the crowd cut off Washington's fingers, toes, and genitals and repeatedly stabbed him.
Ultimately, Washington was doused in oil, lynched, and lit on fire as over 10,000 Waco residents watched on, many of them cheering.
Deaconson said that soon after McCathern began representing Rougley, the two attorneys had a conversation over the phone in which McCathern reminded him of the upcoming anniversary of the lynching and threatened to go public with the story unless the school was prepared to pay out a hefty sum to the girl's family.
"Mr. McCathern first raised any mention of a settlement," Deaconson told me in an email. "He specifically said he intended to try and have things released to the media to coincide with the 'Centennial Anniversary' if he didn’t get well into seven figures and he solely volunteered wanting to get a quick settlement. For him to claim anything else is simply false."
When I spoke with McCathern, he said that, like many Texans living near Waco, Jesse Washington's lynching had been on his mind, but that at no point did he try to leverage the weight and legacy of Washington's death to squeeze money out of the school.
Both lawyers confirmed some kind of settlement has been discussed, but whether one will be reached remains unclear. McCathern provided Fusion with email correspondence in which Deaconson inquired about a "written demand" to forward to the school's insurer, The Cincinnati Indemnity Company.
Deaconson told me that, since the rope incident, Live Oak has made significant changes to its policy regarding contacting parents when a child is injured while under the school's supervision. Now, Deaconson said, all parents are informed immediately, regardless of the circumstances of the incident. He also said that an independent investigation had been launched into the case involving Rougely's daughter.
"To be as succinct as possible, I would wait until the facts come out," he said. "When the independent investigation is completed, we believe that we will find that the injuries were the result of an accident. All we're doing is trying to be as transparent as possible."
McCathern countered, "Look at the physical evidence. Look at the rope marks. Look at the force of that. This couldn't have been an accident."