'The one time I listen to the parents, we end up here.'
Kelly Savage says she was once a vocal ally and friend of the Achcar-Winkels family, but the former Pacer Dance Team parent told a U.S. District Court jury Thursday that she now questions their motives in a lawsuit that accuses the Lake Oswego School District of failing to adequately respond to reports of hazing and bullying.
"It started as us standing up for our daughters, and it became a nightmare," Savage said. "I thought I was standing up for something that was right. And I was wrong."
The federal lawsuit was filed two years ago by Lake Oswego residents Ray and Taissa Achcar-Winkels, who claim their daughter and other incoming freshmen were hazed at a series of "team bonding" events that culminated in an August 2014 team initiation.
The former dancer, who is identified in court documents only as "S.A.," was 14 years old when the alleged incidents took place. She is now a high school senior at Lakeridge High School.
Savage, whose daughter was also on the dance team when the initiation took place, told attorneys in depositions taken in 2015 that she was unhappy with the way the hazing incident had been handled by school officials and that she supported Taissa Achcar-Winkels and her daughter through the bullying and harassment by parents and students that followed the initiation.
Savage said she initially believed that Lakeridge Principal Jennifer Schiele and then-Athletic Director Ian Lamont were ineffective at responding to the hazing because there was no prompt investigation as required by school policy. What she didn't know, she testified Thursday, is that the Achcar-Winkels had asked school officials not to conduct an inquiry.
In fact, Savage said, "I had no idea that she had ever talked to the school."
Savage, whose own daughter was hit in the eye with a water balloon during the Aug. 9, 2014 initiation, said she now believes that Taissa Achcar-Winkels was not acting in the best interest of her daughter "or probably anyone else in this courtroom."
Savage said the young dancer's mother often spoke about wanting revenge for her daughter's experiences, and "discussed bringing the Lake Oswego School District down."
Schiele, Lamont, Superintendent Heather Beck and the LOSD all face a claim of negligence in the federal lawsuit. So does former dance team coach Kayla Nordlum and Suzanne Young, a former parent volunteer who helped with team finances and photos.
In addition, Nordlum faces claims of false imprisonment, a violation of First Amendment rights and intentional infliction of emotional distress. A charge of negligence against Ashley Nordlum, who worked as an assistant dance team coach with her sister, was dismissed on Thursday.
The plaintiffs are seeking economic and non-economic damages, as well as punitive damages for what court documents call a "malicious, oppressive and/or reckless disregard for plaintiffs' rights."
In addition to the August 2014 initiation, Nordlum's actions during a "team bonding" trip to Sunriver are also at the heart of the trial. The Achcar-Winkels claim the coach forced dancers to stay in their rooms by blocking doors with duct tape — until parents objected. Court documents also refer to an overnight trip to Gearhart in June 2104; during that event, team members gathered around a campfire to play a game called "Ten Fingers."
During that game, court records say, "senior PDT dancers disclosed activities they had previously engaged in and other PDT dancers were to indicate if they had engaged in the same activity by raising a finger. Several senior PDT dancers volunteered that they had taken drugs or engaged in sexual activities, including anal and oral sex."
On Thursday, however, the testimony centered on the initial hazing event and officials' responses to it.
According to court documents, the Achcar-Winkels' daughter and other incoming dancers reportedly were pelted with water pistols; covered with syrup and feathers and told to wrestle in front of intoxicated students, some of them male; coaxed to step deeper and deeper into the Willamette River late at night; and forced to ride unbuckled on the floor of cars.
Lamont, who resigned as athletic director at the end of the school year in 2015, testified Thursday that when he found out about the hazing a few days later, he called Ray Achcar-Winkels to discuss it. The two men already knew each other, Lamont said, because he coached both of their sons in youth lacrosse, and they agreed to meet shortly after the phone conversation.
At that meeting, Lamont said, both Ray and Taissa Achcar-Winkels told him that they were not interested in pursuing an investigation, did not want any of the girls involved in the hazing to be punished and wanted to remain anonymous.
"They just wanted the hazing to stop," Lamont said.
He said he advised the family that it would be best to conduct an investigation.
"(Ray) asked for my advice," Lamont said. "I said that if this happened, we have to investigate."
But instead, Lamont said, the district decided to obey the parents' wishes.
"It's fairly ironic that the one time I listen to the parents, we end up here," he said.
Schiele also testified Thursday, saying she spoke to the Achcar-Winkels' daughter after she found out about the hazing incident, and that the dancer's mother was present at the time.
"I apologized to her," Schiele said. "I felt terrible about the way she came forward and did not receive support from her peers. I told her if she needed anything, she could come to me. I felt terrible for her."
The Lakeridge principal said she regrets not immediately launching an investigation into the hazing incident and the bullying that followed. But she corroborated Lamont's story and said school officials had no choice but to follow the parents' wishes.
On Wednesday, Taissa Achcar-Winkels told a different story. She said she and her husband had several telephone conversations with Schiele and Lamont after reporting the hazing incident. She said they were repeatedly told to keep quiet about their daughter's allegations in any communication with people associated with the Pacer Dance Team.
Opening an investigation into the hazing was "one of the options presented to us," Achcar-Winkels testified. "But the only one that protected my daughter from retaliation would be to not do an investigation. We were guaranteed that she would be protected by the administration. I don't believe they did what they could."
Testimony in the Portland courtroom of U.S. District Judge Michael Mosman is expected to wrap up Friday morning, with the case handed to the jury by early afternoon.