Hair-Pulling, Brawls, a Dead Horse: Cheerleader Sues Her School Over Next-Level Bullying

Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast
Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

After more than a year of relentless bullying, including a brutal, hair-pulling beatdown that was filmed and posted online, things got so bad for a 10th-grade cheerleader in Long Island, New York, that her parents put their house up for sale and tried to leave the area altogether—but not before the teen’s emotional support horse “was tragically killed in front of her by the veterinarian.”

That’s according to a $6 million lawsuit obtained by The Daily Beast, which says the 16-year-old was promptly dubbed “horse girl” by her tormentors, whose vicious taunts about the beloved pet and ongoing physical attacks eventually drove the young woman from Smithtown West High School altogether.

The suit alleges the school, the school district, the Board of Ed, and the school superintendent were aware of what was happening but never did anything about it.

“The district does not comment on matters pertaining to litigation, but we take all allegations regarding bullying very seriously and thoroughly investigate such claims,” Smithtown Central School District Superintendent Mark Secaur said in an email. “We remain steadfast in our efforts to create and maintain a positive, safe and nurturing academic environment for all students.”

Not so, argues lawyer Kenneth Mollins, who is representing the cheerleader in the lawsuit.

“The law requires that schools act in loco parentis, or, ‘as parents,’ while kids are in their care and custody,” Mollins told The Daily Beast. “And it has become clear that schools cannot protect their students from bullying. They don’t have the staff, they don’t have the resources, the knowledge, or the know-how to protect students from violence by one student against another. There have been repeated cases, over and over and over again, where schools say they will take affirmative action. And then they do absolutely nothing.”

Earlier this month, the family of a 13-year-old middle school student in California who was beaten to death by a pair of classmates received a $27 million settlement from the Moreno Valley School District. It was reportedly the largest school bullying-related settlement in the United States. In February, the town of Greenwich, Connecticut, paid $5 million to the family of a 15-year-old boy who died by suicide following some four years of vicious bullying. The high school sophomore and his parents had complained at least 25 times to school administrators, who were fully aware of what was going on but failed to respond properly, according to court filings.

Smithtown public schools have been in the spotlight before over bullying. One LGBTQ teen at Great Hollow Middle School made headlines last year when their parents went to the media over what they said was the district’s failure to respond to some four years of nonstop abuse by peers. In 2014, a bus driver for the Smithtown school district was fired after being accused of bullying kids ranging in age from 5 to 10 years old.

“It is an epidemic that needs immediate attention, because kids are getting seriously psychologically damaged as a result of what’s going on in schools,” said Mollins.

‘I Kissed a Boy That You Like’

The Smithtown West case came to Mollins via the cheerleader’s mother, once extensive harm had already been done, he said.

The teen, who is identified as “A.S.” in court filings, started getting bullied constantly during the 2018-2019 school year, while in the sixth grade, according to her lawsuit. It says the bully was a classmate, A.M., who inflicted misery upon A.S. at recess and lunch. (The Daily Beast is withholding A.S.’s name, along with the names of the alleged bullies—all of whom are minors—for privacy purposes.)

A.S. and her parents notified the assistant principal numerous times, in writing and by phone, the lawsuit states. The assistant principal told the family to “fill out a DASA,” that is, register a formal complaint under the Dignity for All Students Act, which was established in 2012 by the New York State legislature to protect students from bullying. But the school’s investigation came back as “unfounded,” according to the lawsuit.

After the COVID lockdowns were lifted, A.S. started ninth grade at Smithtown West in the fall of 2021. She and A.M., who was in the same class, both made the varsity cheer team, the lawsuit states. However, things seemed like they had settled down between the two and the season went by without a hitch. But when A.M. became friends with a teammate, C.V., and fell in with her group, the lawsuit says their new clique began teasing A.S. for being “weird.”

The following summer, A.S. went to a neighboring town for a house party, where A.M., C.V., and a number of other varsity cheerleaders would also be, the lawsuit states. But when A.S. got there, A.M. and several members of the cheer team surrounded her as one sneered, “I kissed a boy that you like.” At that point, another cheerleader snuck up behind A.S., grabbed her hair, and yanked her to the ground, according to the lawsuit. A.M., C.V., and a third student then allegedly punched, kicked, and pulled out [A.S.’s] hair, while another girl captured it all on video, which the lawsuit says suggests the attack was premeditated. The footage was soon “shared across social media, which led to bullying… on Snapchat,” the lawsuit states.

Distraught, A.S. quit the team. Her parents notified the cheer coach, the athletic director, the superintendent, and the principal, and forwarded the video as proof, the suit goes on. Yet, A.M. and the rest of the girls were not disciplined, and A.M. remained on the varsity cheer squad. Smithtown West went on to win a championship, and an interview with a victorious A.M. was featured on the local news, according to the lawsuit.

Nothing had been done to provide a safe atmosphere for A.S., and she was terrified of returning to school for the 2022-2023 academic year, according to the lawsuit. So the family decided to sell their house and get out of town. But the market had softened and they couldn’t find a buyer. In the meantime, A.S. got permission to attend school remotely, getting her assignments and doing them at home.

However, “the education she was receiving at home was unacceptable” to the school district, according to the lawsuit, so a plan was formulated to get her safely back in school. The school proposed having A.S. walked to and from class by a student escort and onsite security staff monitor her well-being, the lawsuit says.

Instead, A.S. was followed, screamed at in the hallways, staircases, and bathroom, according to the lawsuit. At one point, C.V. screamed to A.S.’s escort, “If she fucks with the [opposition], she becomes the [opposition],” according to the lawsuit.

The goal, Mollins told The Daily Beast, was for A.S. to be “alone without friends.”

Furious, A.S.’s parents again said they were pulling their daughter out but, after more promises from the administration, they reluctantly sent her back a few days later, the lawsuit states.

At the school’s homecoming celebration last October, A.S. was again accosted by her former friends, who threw food at her and screamed at her to leave, the suit says. Finally, it says, security had to step in and tell the group to stop. Back at school, the physical hostility toward A.S. alternated with ceaseless microaggressions designed to ostracize her, “such as laughing, pointing, telling [A.S.’s] friends not to be friends with her, right in front of her,” the lawsuit continues.

A.S. parents felt like they had reached a stalemate.

Final straw

In November 2022, A.S.’s parents, at the ends of their respective ropes, decided to get their daughter an emotional support animal. A.S. always loved horses, and the family had enough land to keep one on their property, Mollins told The Daily Beast.

It seemed to be working, and the horse appeared to take A.S.’s mind off what was happening at school, said Mollins. Then, on Valentine’s Day 2023, another setback.

“[A.S.’s] horse was tragically killed in front of her by the veterinarian,” the lawsuit states. (Mollins declined to share additional detail about the incident.)

At this point, A.S.’s bullies opened up a new line of attack, accosting her in the bathroom and halls, “calling her ‘horse girl’ and using derogatory language,” according to the lawsuit. A.S.’s parents pleaded with the school for help but all they got were promises, it alleges.

“Parents were told that there would be a limit of two girls in the bathroom, this procedure was never initiated,” the lawsuit states. “Parents were told that there is not enough staff, only one woman security guard. The school failed to address these issues.”

After another bathroom assault sparked by jealousy over a boy, A.S. identified the ringleader to school administrators, who said they believed the girl when she insisted she hadn’t been involved, the suit states. A week later, however, with the help of A.S.’s doctor, the school district agreed to let her finish out the year with home tutoring.

A.S. was allegedly attacked by the same group of girls for a final time in May, when she had to return to the school building, and the assault was again videotaped, the lawsuit says. Her parents filed a police report, notified the school, and filed another DASA but were told the allegations were unfounded, the lawsuit states.

A photo of the campus of Smithtown West High School in Smithtown, New York.

The campus of Smithtown West High School in Smithtown, New York.

Raychel Brightman/Newsday RM via Getty Images

As far back as 2020, A.S.’s mother posted a picture on social media of a young girl with “BULLYING IS NOT DRAMA” written out in big red letters, and a screenshot of a text message she said her daughter had received, which read, “your actually [sic] really ugly i don’t know what anyone sees in you[.]”

Underneath, A.S.’s father posted: “Perhaps people who are incapable, unwilling or just simply lack the training, desire or empathy to deal with this issue, especially when brought directly to their attention will use dismissive language such as ‘drama.’ However, it’s clear for all to see that such dismissal is acting to support the bullying and actively promote the behavior. It’s especially perplexing when those people appear to be or have been at some point likely targets of bullying themselves. Go figure!”

The school “allowed its bullying students to create a culture of fear and intimidation and to assault others,” while failing “to address the culture or remove them from the school,” the lawsuit argues. Further, it claims, the administration was negligent in “permitting teachers and school [personnel] to join in the acts of discrimination, intimidation, taunting, harassment and bullying” against A.S.

As a result, A.S. “sustained bodily injury, as well as severe emotional harm, mental anguish, shame, humiliation, indignity, and anxiety as well as other injuries, the extent of which are presently unknown.”

Moving ahead with a bullying lawsuit can be an uphill battle, according to Mollins. He said he has long advocated for bullied students, and continues to feel strongly about doing this type of work.

“Every time a parent comes in and we sit down, the student is always quiet,” Mollins told The Daily Beast. “She’s afraid to tell [on the others] because she thinks she’s going to get beaten or abused again. But you’ve got to do something about this. The schools aren’t doing anything. Maybe it’ll change what the schools are doing, if they get held responsible.”

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