Parents sue school for slander after debate team calls 14-year-old son 'traitor' who conspired with opponent

Kristine Solomon
A lawsuit brought against a New Jersey school and its debate coach highlights the high-pressure world of the children’s debate community. (Photo: Getty Images stock image)
A lawsuit brought against a New Jersey school and its debate coach highlights the high-pressure world of the children’s debate community. (Photo: Getty Images stock image)

The parents of a 14-year-old son have filed a lawsuit against a prestigious New Jersey private school and its principal and debate coach after the boy was allegedly branded a “traitor” and accused of sabotaging his team by sharing answers with a rival prior to a major tournament.

The conflict stems from a March 1 debate tournament, the Lakeland Westchester Classic, where preteens and teens representing New Jersey’s Kugnus ACTS Academy and Manhattan’s Yorkville East Middle School competed. The student at the center of the controversy, identified only as S.L., was on the Kugnus ACTS Academy team.

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In the end, a Yorkville East debater won the competition, but the result was contested after some problematic information came to light soon after. Kugnus’s debate coach, David Brown, allegedly overheard a Yorkville East student, identified as V.Y., inform her rivals during the debate’s second round that “I prep with [S.L.],” according to the Washington Post, but the lawsuit claims that Brown misheard the middle-schooler, who reportedly said she was “friends with” S.L.

Once the Kungus students were defeated, Brown began spreading the rumor that S.L. had sabotaged the team by sharing prep materials with V.Y., whom the boy allegedly communicated with on a chat app called Discord. Brown claimed the Yorkville East team had “the exact same overviews, blocks and arguments” as Kugnus’s practice rounds, according to the Bergen Record.

Debate students, the Washington Post explains, participate in rigorous training schedules. On weekends, they often travel to competitions throughout the country, and are expected to be well-versed in such heady topics as “nuclear proliferation” and “sanctions against Russia to the private prison industry.” Debate success is considered a precursor to admission into elite universities and careers in fields such as law and politics.

After S.L. was accused of the transgression, he was not only allegedly vilified by his Kugnus ACTS community but booted from the debate team. S.L.’s parents later found out from another student at the school that an administrator at the academy, identified as Mrs. Cho, told parents that S.L. had been “secretly leaking inside information” to another competitor, the Bergen County Debate Club, according to the Washington Post. Mrs. Cho also reportedly suggested that S.L. be excluded from competing in an upcoming debate at Georgetown University.

Students discussed the scandal on Discord, with one teammate allegedly asking, “Are you going to share our prep with some random team in Discord again? That team won the tournament!” The suit alleges S.L. asked V.Y. to join the Discord chat room so that she could dispel the rumors and convince the community that S.L. had never shared debate prep material with her. But the students wouldn’t back down, and sided with their coach, Brown.

But S.L.’s parents maintain that all accusations against their son are false, and they are suing the school and its authorities for slander. They allege that he never shared debate materials with any of his opponents, and that as an eighth-grader, he had the right to befriend students from other debate teams. In the suit, they accuse Brown and Mrs. Cho of “false, malicious and defamatory” comments.

S.L.’s parents are seeking “unknown amounts of punitive damages, treble damages and legal fees from the school,” according to the Bergen Record. Their attorney, Michael Kimm, told the Bergen Record that “the family is seeking to have his good name and character restored.”

But Sung Keem, the president and founder of the debate academy, called the family’s allegations “absurd” and said a lawsuit “makes no sense whatsoever” and is “almost laughable,” according to the Bergen Record. However, he added that he would welcome S.L. back on the team, as he had been “the most aggressive” debater out of all 40 students.

Yahoo Lifestyle has reached out to the debate coach and the family’s attorney for further comment.

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