A Georgetown County jury returned a $100,000 judgment Feb. 10. against Denetta McCray and the Georgetown County School District, finding the parties acted with gross negligence during an Oct. 30, 2013, incident at Georgetown High School and subsequent investigation.
The plaintiff’s attorney, Bill Hopkins, speaking on behalf of his clients, Shelby Jones and her father, Travis Jones, said the lawsuit was filed after Shelby, then a GHS cheerleader, was repeatedly bullied by McCray, her GHS cheerleading coach.
Hopkins said the incidents were reported to school and district staff. In spite of the knowledge, Hopkins said, the district allowed McCray to remain at her coaching post.
“I have a great deal of respect for school district administrators and teachers,” Hopkins said, "but in this case ... the school and district’s conduct was reprehensible.”
When suing a school district, Hopkins further added, “You have to prove more than negligence – you must prove gross negligence. The jury found the school district acted with gross negligence in regards to its investigation and handling of Shelby’s bullying complaint, and they also found that McCray was acting within her scope of employment with the district.”
According to court documents, Shelby Jones was bullied by McCray, who was then serving as varsity cheerleading coach. The documents claim that McCray, on Oct. 30, 2013, "began making derogatory comments about plaintiff's private body parts, causing other students to laugh at plaintiff."
Court documents detail that Shelby Jones told McCray that she was being a bully, to which the coach replied, "Honey, you don't know what bullying is." Later, the suit claims, the student's mother called McCray, who admitted making the statements but classified them as "a joke."
The suit also claims that the school's principal and school system should have done more to investigate the issue and further claim that the harassment continued for months. At one point, the school's principal suspended varsity cheerleading for two weeks, which the lawsuit claims punished all the cheerleaders, rather than McCray. The school system's investigation, the suit claims, was not intensive and failed to interview a number of eyewitnesses to the bullying.
The lawsuit also detailed several times over many months in which McCray continued to harass the student, such as an April 2, 2014, awards presentation. "McCray made public, individualized comments about each girl in recognizing their participation as varsity cheerleaders," the lawsuit claims. "McCray's speech include belittling remarks about plaintiff in a room full of parents and cheerleaders. Plaintiff could be heard crying herself to sleep that night."
The lawsuit said "McCrary took advantage of every opportunity available to make plaintiff feel uncomfortable."
In response to the jury’s verdict, Andrea White, an attorney for the school district issued a statement, saying the district does not believe that the facts and evidence presented during the trial support the verdict.
“Accordingly, the district is reviewing with legal counsel and the district’s insurance carrier the options available to the district at this time,” White said in the statement. “These options include, but are not limited to, moving for a new trial, and/or appealing the verdict to the South Carolina Court of Appeals.”
Shelby Jones, now 19 and a student at the University of South Carolina, and her parents spoke with The Georgetown Times, and they said the verdict has taken a great deal of stress off their minds and given them hope that the next student that reports an incident of bullying will be taken seriously.
“It’s hard to watch your daughter being hurt over and over and the school and the school district just sits back and doesn’t do anything about it,” Travis Jones said. “A lot of people will look at the monetary award and think that we did this for money, but that’s just not the case.”
Cathy Jones said she was happy that her daughter could now hold her head up with dignity, knowing that her decision to go through with the lawsuit was the right one.
“Anyone who thinks that it was easy for Shelby to make this decision is wrong,” Cathy Jones said. “The amount of stress she suffered from the bullying incident was compounded by her having to relive the ordeal during the trial. …
“That’s not easy for a teenager to live through once, let alone having to relive it in an open courtroom in front of strangers – I am beyond proud of her.”
Shelby Jones said she has replayed the jury’s announcement over and over in her head.
“I can’t tell you exactly what I was thinking at that moment,” Shelby said. “What I can tell you is that I think the jury made the right decision and they arrived at that decision after listening to both sides of the story. …
“I just hope that the district won’t let this happen to another student.”