Wisconsin military school sues over Web sites posting police reports

Tuesday, July 17, 2001

A Wisconsin military academy has filed a lawsuit in Waukesha County Circuit Court claiming an Illinois man damaged the school’s reputation by publishing crime reports on the Internet that detail alleged illegal campus activity.

In its suit filed May 16, St. John’s Northwestern Military Academy claims Gary Meyers, father of a former academy cadet, and his attorney Terry Boesch, harmed the school by posting on two Web sites student claims that they were discriminated against and physically abused at the academy. The school wants the police reports posted on Meyers’ site removed.

Named as defendants in the suit are Meyers, Boesch and Boesch’s Indiana law firm, Boesch & Istrabadi.

The law firm provides on its Web site information about recent lawsuits that former students have filed this year, claiming school officials and other cadets mistreated them at the school in Delafield, Wis.

Meyers’ site, titled “SJNMA Alternate Parents Club,” includes police reports from the Delafield Police Department, news articles and copies of lawsuits that former St. John’s students have filed against the school in the past two years.

Meyers and 11 other Chicago-area families filed a $20 million lawsuit in August 1999, claiming that their sons were harassed or mistreated at the school.

In the suit, parents alleged that “St. John’s was aware of and acquiesced to physical assaults on students by other students” including branding, sexual assaults and death threats. The complaint states that the school did not try to stop any of the violent behavior or punish the offenders.

Meyers’ son Aaron, now a high school junior, was expelled from St. John’s in January 1999 for not doing his homework and lying about it, Meyers said. The school’s claims are not true, he said.

Aaron decided to attend the academy because he “wanted to learn discipline and he wanted the clarity of an honor code that wasn’t in the public school system,” Meyers said.

Some students, including Aaron Meyers, also claim that the school discriminated against them because they are Jewish. According to the 1999 complaint, the school harassed Jewish cadets who wanted to observe religious holidays. The suit also alleges that school officials forced them to partake in nonreligious services and stopped them from studying Jewish texts.

The 1999 complaint was dismissed on a technicality in January because the parents did not have an attorney to represent them at a court date, Meyers said.

Several former St. John’s students have filed lawsuits this year in federal and state courts alleging Academy staff members and students physically and mentally abused them.

In one case, 19-year-old Andrew Schut claims he was “held down and branded by two students with a hot coat hanger while attending St. John’s.” Schut’s suit, filed in Wisconsin’s Waukesha County Circuit Court March 15, also alleges that an academy student broke his jaw and that he was beaten 10 to 15 times by fellow students.

“Schut literally slept under his bed out of fear and to prevent further beating incidents,” the suit claims.

“I want to assure you personally that St. John’s Northwestern is committed to the well being of your son,” St. John’s President Ronald J. Kurth wrote in a letter to all students’ parents, responding to television reports about the lawsuits filed by former cadets. Kurth’s letter, dated May 14, was posted on St. John’s Web site in May and is currently displayed on the parents’ site.

“It is our view that the plaintiffs and their lawyers are attempting to use the media to challenge the long-standing integrity of the school, in part, because the original (1999) case brought against St. John’s Northwestern has not resulted in the plaintiffs’ favor,” Kurth’s letter states.

The students’ allegations posted on the two Web sites harm St. John’s reputation “so as to lower the plaintiff in the estimation of the community and deter [parents and students] from associating or dealing with St. John’s,” the suit contends. The school claims the allegations are false.

The academy’s suit further argues that Meyers and Boesch published the information “with express malice in that they were motivated by ill will, revenge and bad intent.”

“This is not being done out of malice,” Meyers told freedomforum.org. “There’s something fundamentally rotten about the school. We’re standing up for what’s right.”

St. John’s is seeking compensatory and punitive damages “in an amount to be determined at trial,” court costs and attorneys’ fees. The school also wants Meyers to withdraw the police reports from the Web site and return the reports to the Delafield Police Department.

St. John’s attorney, Bruce C. O’Neil, told freedomforum.org that the Delafield Police Department should not have released the crime reports to Meyers because juveniles were involved in the cases. “I think [Meyers] knew the police shouldn’t have disclosed the reports to him,” O’Neil said. “The police didn’t know the law.”

St. John’s suit argues that Wisconsin law prohibits police officers from releasing crime reports to citizens when juveniles are involved in the cases. “He has no right to publish those records to anybody,” O’Neil said.

Delafield Police Chief Scott Taubel told freedomforum.org that Wisconsin’s open-records statutes “allow for the majority of records to be released to the public, but records involving a juvenile in sexual assault cases are not to be released.” Also, juvenile names in crime cases are not to be disclosed, Taubel said.

According to James A. Friedman, attorney with La Follette Godrey & Kahn in Madison, Wis., news reporters in Wisconsin may reveal the names of juveniles when the case is prosecuted in adult court or when the file is open to the public, “whether because the juvenile has previously been adjudicated delinquent and is charged with a violation that would be a felony if committed by an adult or because the juvenile is charged with a violation that would be a serious felony if committed by an adult.”

“In all other cases heard in juvenile court, the news media may attend hearings and obtain access to law enforcement and court records only on condition that news reports not identify the child or family involved,” said Friedman.

Former police chief Jack Arndt, now retired, gave Meyers the crime reports without “blacking out” or deleting all of the names of the juveniles, Taubel said.

Meyers said he followed Arndt’s instructions in requesting the reports from the police department.

“We got the reports the way you’re supposed to get them,” Meyers said. “[Arndt] sent us the copies and we paid for them,” he said. “How is that anybody’s property but mine?”

Kurth could not be reached for comment.

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