The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A 14-year-old was labeled a ‘traitor’ and accused of sabotaging his debate team, his parents say in a lawsuit

A debate club practices in a middle school classroom. (Getty Images/Hero Images)
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On March 1, hundreds of hypercompetitive teens and preteens from all over the East Coast flocked to a suburban high school campus in New York’s Westchester County. Dressed in awkwardly fitting blazers, they huddled over their laptops in the cafeteria, nervously cramming. It was the first day of the Lakeland Westchester Classic, an annual tournament for middle school and high school debaters that fields teams from some of the nation’s most elite institutions.

Kugnus ACTS Academy, a New Jersey-based academic training center whose debaters had won top honors in past years, was set to face off against Manhattan’s highly regarded Yorkville East Middle School in the second round. Someone would have to go home empty-handed. In the end, Kugnus came up short and a Yorkville East debater walked away with the division’s top award.

Afterward, according to a lawsuit filed last Thursday, the rumor mill spiraled out of control as one Kugnus debater was branded a “traitor” and accused of selling out the team by sharing top-secret files and strategies with a friend from Yorkville East.

As the Bergen Record first reported, the 14-year-old boy’s parents are now suing the school for slander. They allege that their son, who is identified in court documents as “S.L.,” was forced out of his debate program after he became the victim of “false, malicious and defamatory” remarks.

The extracurricular academy, which is based in Closter, N.J., and requires a test for admission, has denied any wrongdoing and told the New York Post that no bullying took place.

The lawsuit pulls back the curtain on the pressure-cooker world of competitive debate, which has launched the careers of top lawyers and politicians such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), but still commands far less attention than academic, athletic or artistic performances. For many teenagers, ranking in debate tournaments is seen as a path to admission at elite universities, and the debate coach for Kugnus touts in his official bio that his students have gone on to Harvard, Tufts and the University of Chicago.

Students spend school nights “poring over amicus briefs or economic analyses,” as former high school debater Jack McCordick wrote in America magazine, dedicating their weekends to travel to competitions all over the country. Beyond simply being able to think on their feet, debaters also have to be well-versed in a broad array of issues, ready to hold forth, as McCordick noted, “on everything from nuclear proliferation to sanctions against Russia to the private prison industry.”

In the case of the recent New Jersey lawsuit, all the drama appears to have emanated from an offhand remark made by a middle schooler at the Lakeland Westchester competition. According to the lawsuit, a Yorkville East student identified as “V.Y.” greeted her rivals before the second round, and mentioned that she was familiar with Kugnus ACTS because she was friends with S.L., whom she knew from Discord, a chat app popular with gamers and other niche communities.

But Kugnus’s debate coach, David Brown, “overheard something drastically different and sinister,” the lawsuit claims. He allegedly misunderstood the girl’s words, thinking that she had said “I prep with [S.L.]" when, in fact, she had said that she was “friends with” him. (Brown could not be reached for comment late Monday night.)

After Kugnus was defeated in that same round, Brown went around informing team members and their parents that the loss was S.L.’s fault, the lawsuit says. He allegedly told them Yorkville East had “the exact same overviews, blocks and arguments” from Kugnus’s practice rounds, and the fact that V.Y. had described herself as S.L.'s “best friend” had led him to conclude that they were sharing files.

That wasn’t true, the lawsuit says: Comparing the two teams’ practice materials through Google Docs would show that they were “materially different.” Nonetheless, the rumor “spread like wildfire,” according to the suit. Two days after the team’s defeat, S.L. was called out for sabotaging the debate during an online chat with other Kugnus students.

“Are you going to share our prep with some random team in Discord again?” one of his teammates allegedly asked him. “That team won the tournament!”

According to the suit, S.L. asked V.Y. to join the chat room so that she could clear everything up. She clarified that she had never said that they practiced together and that S.L. had never given her any of the materials that his team used to prepare for debates. But the student who had brought up the issue wouldn’t budge and insisted that he believed their coach, the lawsuit states.

The gossip and accusations apparently didn’t stop there. On March 5, S.L.'s mother got a phone call from another Kugnus parent, who allegedly claimed that an administrator at the academy had suggested that S.L. had surreptitiously joined a rival debate team.

That administrator, who is identified only as “Mrs. Cho” in the complaint, allegedly told multiple parents that S.L. was “secretly leaking inside information” to the Bergen County Debate Club, a competitor. As a result, she suggested, he needed to be banned from competing in an upcoming debate at Georgetown University.

S.L.'s parents fervently deny the idea that their eighth-grader was some kind of debate team double agent, hellbent on undermining Kugnus ACTS Academy’s success. They contend in the lawsuit that he never leaked study material or prepped for debates with members of opposing teams, and also note that as a 14-year-old boy, he had the right to make friends with kids from other teams or debate clubs.

The lawsuit doesn’t make clear exactly when S.L. left Kugnus ACTS Academy, and Michael Kimm, the family’s attorney, couldn’t immediately be reached for comment late Monday night.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages and legal fees from the school.

Correction: A previous version of this story cited reporting from the Bergen Record, which incorrectly identified the president of Kugnus ACTS Academy. Hyung Kim runs the academy.

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