Springfield College Football Player Challenged Suspension for Illegal Drug Possession

Jun 9, 2017

Springfield College Football Player Challenged Suspension for Illegal Drug Possession
Ellen J. Staurowsky, Ed.D., Professor, Sport Management, Drexel University, ejs95@drexel.edu
Did a Springfield College football player and two of his teammates concoct a story to cover up an incident of illicit drug use in an on-campus residence or was the player falsely accused of wrongdoing when campus safety officers and resident assistants mistook powdery residue left on a desk in his room from caffeine pills for cocaine? In Wekilsky v. Springfield College, the plaintiff argued that college officials subjected him to a blatantly unfair, arbitrary, and capricious disciplinary investigation, hearing, and finding due to failures to follow college policies and procedures resulting in intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress.
Upon arriving back on campus after Thanksgiving Break in November of 2016, Springfield College football player Zachary Wekilsky checked his email to find a letter from the Director of Housing and Residential Life, Robert Yanez, calling him to a meeting. The purpose of the meeting, held on November 28, 2016, was to determine if he had violated College policy by possessing an illegal narcotic, specifically cocaine. Concerned about the allegation, Wekilsky made his way to Yanez’s office where the two met for approximately 15-20 minutes. At the end of the meeting, wherein Wekilsky denied having any illegal drugs in his room, Wekilsky was informed that he faced a serious charge given documentation obtained from resident assistants and campus safety officers that would likely result in disciplinary action.
In the aftermath of the meeting, Wekilsky asserted that the allegations were so far beyond his understanding of reality, and in the absence of any documentation such as a lab report that he could look at and examine, he set out to determine on his own what led to that wrongful accusation. In reconstructing events, he claimed that when he departed the on-campus townhouse residence a few days prior to Thanksgiving, he left his room open in accordance with general practice among students living there in a suite (four individual bedrooms and a common space). Suitemates left their rooms unlocked as a matter of convenience and courtesy. Those who might have company could use unoccupied rooms at will until all occupants of the unit went home.
On previous occasions when Wekilsky left campus to return to his family home in New Jersey, it was not unusual that his suitemates would enter his room to raid his stash of snacks (he apparently had an affection for Ding Dongs) and beer. According to his account, when he asked other students who remained in the suite what had happened while he was gone, two students (fellow athletes on the football team) indicated that they had in fact done exactly that.
In detailing the events that occurred, Wekilsky argued that his teammates would testify that the substance believed to be cocaine was caffeine. Explaining this further, Wekilsky alleged that his teammates had cut up caffeine pills on the desk to put into their beer so that they could party longer into the evening in question.
Over the course of the next two days following what the College referred to as a “disciplinary conference” (November 29 and 30, 2016), Wekilsky’s teammates met with Yanez and offered oral statements affirming the story. After those oral statements were made to Yanez, two events occurred. First, Yanez contacted two of the three players (Wekilsky and Player 1) notifying them of a scheduled meeting the next morning. In the intervening hours before that meeting, the players received a call to meet with the head football coach (December 1, 2016). Wekilsky described the meeting as one in which the coach spelled out to the other player (Player 1) that his testimony would not vindicate Wekilsky and that if the other player did not recant his story, Player 1 too would suffer the same fate that awaited Wekilsky, a year-long suspension from school.
In the December 2, 2016 meeting, described as a “fact-finding session”, Mr. Yanez is alleged to have conveyed a similar position to that of the head coach, explaining that if Player 1 acknowledged that he lied initially and recanted, only Wekilsky would face disciplinary action. In effect, based on what Wekilsky alleged, he felt pressured by the prospect that his continued pursuit of the matter would result not only in his own suspension but in the suspension of one of his teammates. He claims that because of that pressure, he and Player 1 discussed what the best course of action was and decided that Player 1 would take back his story so that harm befell only one of them. Wekilsky’s second teammate (Player 2) was dismissed from the case by Mr. Yanez because he added nothing to the information already gathered. Wekilsky persisted in maintaining his innocence but his efforts to offer evidence in support of that evaporated. Subsequently, on December 6, 2016, Wekilsky received notice that he had been found responsible for cocaine possession and suspended for a full year.
Wekilsky Files Complaint Against Springfield College & Seeks Injunctive Relief
After exhausting all avenues of appeal within the College’s judicial system, Wekilsky brought suit against Springfield College in January of 2017 for breach of contractual obligations for conducting fair a investigation and hearing as set forth in the Student Conduct Handbook and violation of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing implied therein. Among the harms alleged to have resulted from Springfield’s treatment of Wikelsky included reputational harm (his characterization as a drug user), the physical manifestations of the stress he was experiencing (headaches, sleepless nights, loss of weight), the psychological toll on his well-being (depression, anxiety), and interruptions of his football playing career, academic career, and future professional career.
On the heels of that came the request for a preliminary injunction ordering Springfield to re-enroll Wekilsky for the spring of 2017 without restrictions given that it was more likely than not that when the case was heard it would succeed on the merits.
In support of his preliminary injunction request, Wekilsky pointed out that just three weeks prior to the inspection of his room and discovery of the white powdery residue, he had tested clean for any kind of illegal substance as a result of a random drug test to which football players were subjected by the athletic department. He also pointed out that the very fact that his room had been left open for others to enter, including resident assistants who he knew would be conducting room inspections, challenged the logic that he would blatantly leave evidence of an illegal substance in his room to be found so easily.
Referencing the Springfield College Student Handbook, he further challenged the fairness of his treatment, noting that protocols had not been followed, there was no opportunity to independently verify and examine the drug test that condemned him, and no opportunity to question his accusers because he had no idea who they were. He also claimed that the Director failed to offer information regarding Wekilsky’s rights and avenues of appeal.
In its attempt to block Wekilsky’s request for a preliminary injunction, Springfield College argued that grounds for suspending Wekilsky rested in a policy that informed students that they were responsible for locking up their rooms when they were not present and that they would be held accountable for what happened in their rooms regardless of whether they were personally there or not. The College also pointed out that just prior to Thanksgiving Break, all resident students had been sent a reminder regarding that policy.
Springfield further relied on the notion that numerous courts have given higher education institutions the latitude to handle these kinds of incidents through their own judicial processes because of the special nature of these communities. Citing to Schulman v. Franklin and Marshall College (1988), Springfield College summarily addressed this point by arguing that, “From the days of the Medici’s, who created the colleges in Florence during the Renaissance, to modern times, colleges have been unique in their insulation from state taxation controls and their self-government” (as cited in Springfield College v. Wekilsky, 2017, p. 19).
Thus, when Wekilsky argued that his rights to due process had been undermined when he was not afforded an opportunity for counsel; the right to question his accusers, or the right to call witnesses on his own behalf and put forward evidence, Springfield responded that their procedure simply called for an effort to “hear about the incident from the student’s perspective” (Springfield College v. Wekilsky, 2017, p. 12).
In a decision issued by U.S. District Judge Mark Mastrianni, he ruled that the suspension was improper and Wekilsky was to be permitted to re-enroll at Springfield. Determining that the process leading to Wekilsky’s suspension was arbitrary and capricious, the low bar used to determine wrongdoing, the damage done to his life (loss of a required internship, disruption of academic and athletic careers, loss of tuition dollars and other expenses associated with his education), and weak evidence, Wekilsky was issued the temporary injunction he sought.
While the case was expected to go to trial within 60 days after the injunction was issued, the case was resolved before that point. By mid-February of 2017, there was a stipulation entered dismissing the case with prejudice by Springfield College.
Questions to Ponder
Why was the football coach aware of the discipline outcomes before a finding had been determined in Wekilsky’s case? Why was the coach consulted in a student judicial matter?
While Judge Mastrianni chastised the defense for not being aware of the potential flaws in the testing kit used to determine that the substance collected was cocaine, what were the potential problems with Wekilsky questioning potential witnesses on his own?
Why did Player 2 stop speaking to Wekilsky about the caffeine story and why was Player 2 dismissed so quickly by the Director of Housing and Residence Life?
How does this case fit in terms of other cases raising questions regarding the due process rights of students under established college and university judicial processes? In light of the availability of resources such as FIRE’s (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) Guide to Due Process and Campus Justice (Silverglate & Gewolb, 2014), will more students and college athletes contest administrative approaches to college and university investigations, hearings, and penalty structures?
Barry, S. (2017, January 23). Lawsuit: Springfield College football player improperly expelled over false allegation of cocaine use. Masslive.com. Retrieved from http://www.masslive.com/news/index.ssf/2017/01/lawsuit_springfield_college_fo.html
Barry, S. (2017, January 25). Expelling Springfield College football player wins reinstatement, pending trial. Masslive.com. Retrieved from http://www.masslive.com/news/index.ssf/2017/01/expelled_springfiel_college_fo.html
Wekilsky v. Springfield College. (2017). Case 3:17-cv-30007-MGM. Retrieved from https://www.pacermonitor.com/view/I3GX35A/Wekilsky_v_Springfield_College__madce-17-30007__0001.0.pdf
Wekilsky v. Springfield College. (2017). Short order of notice and a request for a preliminary injunction. Case 3:17-cv-30007-MGM. Pacermonitor.com.
Wekilsky v. Springfield College. (2017). Opposition to plaintiff’s request for a preliminary injunction. Case 3:17-cv-30007-MGM. Pacermonitor.com.


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