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Kansas military school tries to shield criminal past of employees in cadet abuse lawsuit

Updated: 2014-02-14T04:21:25Z

By ROXANA HEGEMAN The Associated Press

— A Kansas military boarding school embroiled in a lawsuit that alleges widespread abuse of cadets is asking a federal judge to prohibit any mention of its employees’ prior arrests and criminal convictions during next month’s trial.

The request was among 21 sealed motions filed Wednesday by St. John’s Military School seeking to restrict what evidence the jury will hear when the trial begins March 4 in U.S. District Court in Kansas City, Kan. The motions seek to limit evidence regarding a purported attempted rape and some other alleged abuse incidents, a Salina Police Department incident analysis report, findings by the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services and salaries of the school’s workers, among other things.

The lawsuit was filed in March 2012 by former cadets who claim the Salina boarding school fosters a culture of abuse by allowing higher-ranking cadets to discipline younger ones. The 11 cadets – who hail from California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Tennessee and Texas – contend in their lawsuit that the school knew such a disciplinary structure caused harm, but still failed to protect its students. Nearly 340 current and former students have made complaints during the past five years to St. John’s Military School claiming they were beaten, hazed, harassed or abused, including 21 who say they were branded, according to court documents.

The school denies a culture of abuse exists and has vowed to fight the lawsuit.

Also filed Wednesday were four sealed motions from the former cadets seeking to exclude from trial all references about illicit drug use and any of their own “prior bad acts.” The students also want to exclude any references to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party as well as to a shooting, the latter an apparent reference to a 2013 drive-by shooting that injured a former St. John’s military adviser.

Because the motions are sealed, the details and arguments in them aren’t public, only notices on the court docket can be seen.

St. John’s President Andy England said Thursday in an email that both parties have moved to exclude irrelevant evidence at trial, as is standard pretrial procedure. He said any discussion of the contents of the sealed filings or exhibits would be a violation of a protective court order in the case.

Attorney Daniel Zmijewski, who represents the 11 ex-cadets who sued the school, said Thursday such filings typically seek to exclude information that is prejudicial, rather than probative, for trial under the rules of evidence. He too declined to discuss the specific sealed filings.

“I am not gonna suggest we have anything to hide. I never have,” Zmijewski said. “Obviously, we are providing information to the court about stuff that has been in this case. Whether or not it is relevant to the case is what we are trying to get the judge to decide.”

In a ruling allowing the case to go forward, U.S. District Judge John Lungstrum last month cited evidence that shows supervisors tolerated and even witnessed physical abuse by students of other students; that students complained and local police were called on a number of occasions; and that multiple lawsuits alleging physical abuse had been filed. The judge also cited evidence that supervisors were poorly paid and included people with criminal records.

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