A judge has ruled that an all-state lineman removed from the Flathead High School football team for allegedly violating the school’s chemical-use policy must be reinstated until a lawsuit filed by his mother reaches a conclusion.
Flathead District Court Judge Katherine Curtis on Friday issued a preliminary injunction preventing the school’s administration from barring 17-year-old Connor Thomas from extracurricular activities. Thomas did not travel with the team for Friday’s game against Bozeman High School.
Mary Thomas filed a lawsuit against Kalispell School District 5 on Sept. 24. The Braves’ senior standout was one of four football players suspended Sept. 22 after a traffic stop in Kalispell led to the discovery of marijuana and paraphernalia, according to court documents.
Connor Thomas, who was driving the vehicle during a lunchtime break, denied inhaling marijuana or owning any of the devices used to smoke it. Another student in the vehicle claimed ownership and received a citation, according to court documents.
The school district’s chemical-use policy states that a student cannot use drugs of any kind “or be present for any length of time at a gathering or location where the use of or the possession of drugs is illegally taking place during an activity season.”
Thomas was removed from the team based on that policy.
Thomas’s attorney, Sean Hinchey, argued that the policy deprives his client of equal protection and due process and that it should be rendered void due to vagueness. Hinchey focused his argument on the fact that Thomas’s suspension from the team would likely lead to the loss of a full-ride scholarship to play football at Oregon State University. The 6-foot-5-inch, 260-pound player has made a verbal commitment to play for the Beavers.
In her ruling, Curtis noted that Montana state law allows an injunction to be issued when it appears the plaintiff is entitled to damages or if the plaintiff would be irreparably damaged during the course of litigation.
Thomas’ lawsuit stated that damage would likely take place in the form of a lost scholarship valued at about $200,000.
Curtis ruled that the possibility constitutes sufficient harm to allow for an injunction.
In her decision, Curtis also wrote that the school district provided no evidence that its chemical-use policy is reasonable and that the district would be required to do so at a trial.
“There simply was no evidence at all presented to this court to support the (policy),” Curtis wrote.
Kalispell School District Superintendent Darlene Schottle said Thomas would be reinstated to the team per Curtis’ order. That’s not the case for the other three players removed, she said. They would have to take similar action and show that legitimate money damages would result from their suspension, she said.
“I think at this point we are just going to implement the order as written and we will see what the next steps are from the litigation and court proceedings,” Schottle said Friday evening.
She said the ruling worries her to an extent.
“Depending on the outcome, we’ll need to evaluate if that is the appropriate policy,” Schottle said.
During his time at Flathead High School, Thomas has accumulated numerous accolades in football, wrestling and track. He finished third at the Class AA State Wrestling Tournament in each of the last two seasons. He was a first-team all-state selection as an offensive lineman and a second team all-conference defensive tackle choice, both in 2009, and was the 2010 Class AA shotput champion.
Thomas testified through an affidavit filed in District Court that he was driving when the marijuana was discovered, but denied any wrongdoing.
“I was not provided access to what, if any, investigation Flathead High School did before discharging me from the football team,” Thomas wrote. “However, I believe there is no evidence that I physically possessed or consumed marijuana or paraphernalia.”