Lawsuit filed against Canton City School District by student allegedly forced to eat pork

Published: Dec. 30, 2021 at 10:58 AM EST
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CANTON, Ohio (WOIO) - Records show the former McKinley High School football player, allegedly forced to violate the tenets of his religion by eating pork, filed a lawsuit Wednesday in U.S. District Courts against the Canton City School District.

The lawsuit claims that seven coaches punished the former student for missing a weight-lifting session by forcing him to eat a pepperoni pizza in May 2021.

The teen and his family are Hebrew Israelite and keep kosher, meaning they don’t eat pork.

Defendants named in the lawsuit include the Canton City School District and Canton City School District Board of Education as well as former coaches Marcus Wattley, Frank McLeod, Zachary Sweat, Romero Harris, Cade Brodie, Tyler Thatcher and Josh Grimsley.

The former student and his parents are seeking injunctive relief and damages from the defendants, according to the lawsuit.

“It just crosses a line so on every level, it’s just wrong,” the family’s attorney, Ed Gilbert, told 19 News in an earlier interview. “In his view, the whole pizza was spoiled. The whole pizza was something that could not be ingested. He was ordered to eat that, and if he did not eat it then he would be most likely removed from the team, and the other teammates would have to do extra exercise that day. So, you have the whole team around in this gym. You have eight coaches there yelling at him that he has to eat this stuff.”

Gilbert shared a press release with 19 News that said, in part:

“On May 24th, 2021, a star football player for the Canton McKinley Bulldogs was subject to a horrible incident of being forced to eat the residue of a pork pepperoni pizza in violation of his religious beliefs. The penalty for refusing to eat the pizza was possible removal from the football team. All coaches involved have been terminated from the Canton School District. The central facts in this case are undisputed. The family has been in intense settlement discussions with the Canton School District. These discussions resulted in a resolution. However, the District’s insurance company has reneged on the settlement thereby forcing the family to move forward with litigation. The effected child has been forced to leave the District due to threats from his teammates and members of the Canton community. The child is mentally devastated.”

You can read the full lawsuit below.

“Here’s the reality -- after that meeting, he hugged those coaches and said thank you for getting me right,” said Chuck Kozelko with the Pattakos law firm. “He was the first kid at practice the next day - he was a kid teetering. Unlike calling cops or giving up on these kids, Coach Wattley and his staff -- it just wasn’t in their DNA.”

Attorney Peter Pattakos, who represents several of the former coaches, shared this statement with 19 News regarding the lawsuit:

“When this story first broke last spring we immediately came forward with evidence -- including statements from more than a dozen eyewitnesses -- showing that the wild accusations that the coaches forced K.W. to eat pizza against his religion were false and defamatory. After Ed Gilbert, his clients, and the district officials who wrongly terminated the coaches refused to retract their false statements and reinstate these excellent coaches, we sued them for defamation in a case that has been pending in Stark County in July. With their efforts to extort a settlement from the district having failed, Ed Gilbert and his clients had little choice but to file this pathetic lawsuit as a defense against the coaches’ defamation claims against them.

We look forward to further exposing the truth about this matter in court and anyone interested in the same is free to review a copy of our 67-page complaint, which, unlike Gilbert’s frivolous 13-page lawsuit, sets forth the truth in great and well-documented detail.”

Canton City School District Superintendent Jeff Talbert said the school board denies claims made in the lawsuit and will address them during the legal process. In an earlier interview Talbert called the coaches behavior “inappropriate” and “demeaning.”

This is a developing story. Return to 19 News for updates.

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