Suspended student seeks reinstatement

Strasburg High School students protest along South Holliday Street in Strasburg recently in support of classmate Cory Clinedinst, who was suspended during the investigation of a bus incident. Cory has appealed his suspension. Rich Cooley/Daily

STRASBURG – Cory Clinedinst spends his days at home in front of a computer screen studying, completing assignments and taking tests while his classmates at Strasburg High School begin to wind down the academic year a few blocks away.

Cory, a junior, will earn high school credits if he successfully completes his computer-based coursework. But he is an unwilling stay-at-home student. School officials suspended him in February and have kept him out of school since then. The suspension traces back to Cory’s presence on a school bus carrying members of the junior varsity and varsity boys basketball team on Dec. 19.

Cory was a member of the team, just another player returning from a game in Moorefield, West Virginia, when a fracas broke out in the darkness around him. What happened next among the players remains a subject of fierce disagreement today.

Law enforcement officials charged seven students on the bus with assault or battery by mob, a misdemeanor. School officials contend they have evidence, some of it on videotape, of sexual misconduct by the students, but Sheriff Timothy C. Carter and Commonwealth’s Attorney Amanda McDonald Wiseley said their investigations did not produce enough evidence to charge anyone with a sex offense.

Several facts are clear to Cory. School officials suspended him about two months later. He was never charged or convicted in the incident, unlike other players on the bus. A student speaking at a Shenandoah County School Board meeting last week made an impassioned plea to lift Cory’s suspension. But he is still out of school and will not be allowed to set foot on the premises until after June 15 – unless the School Board hears his appeal of the suspension and agrees to lift it.

Cory Clinedinst, a junior at Strasburg High School, and his mother Sheila Clinedinst look at his laptop screen at their home on Friday. Cory, a member of the school’s varsity basketball team, has been suspended from school since February and has been taking classes online.  Rich Cooley/Daily

The suspension also applies to his participation in sports, including baseball, his first love.

Cory and his parents, Sheila and Gary Clinedinst, said school officials have given several reasons why they believe he should spend the remainder of the school year at home. They reject all of the accusations.

“I didn’t do anything,” Cory said. “I really need my education because what I’m doing now is like, it’s hard to learn by myself.”

The Clinedinsts say Cory and his father met with principal Morgan Saeler in early February. Sheila Clinedinst said Saeler accused Cory of lying to school officials about what happened on the bus. The result was a 10-day suspension that has now grown to more than 50 days.

“He needs to be in the classroom listening to the teacher to do his work,” Sheila Clinedinst said of her son.

Saeler referred questions about the Clinedinst case to Superintendent Jeremy Raley.

“I told him I didn’t do anything at all,” Cory Clinedinst said of his interview with Saeler. “He said what he had in his notes wasn’t matching up to what I was saying.”

Asked what Saeler’s notes were based on, Cory replied: “It was the video.”

The videotape is the subject of a lawsuit filed by the School Board against Sheriff Timothy C. Carter. The Sheriff’s Office received the tape, recorded by a surveillance system on the school bus, shortly after the investigation began in mid-January. School officials and an outside attorney hired to conduct an investigation required by federal civil rights law contend it shows sexual misconduct during the incident.

Carter has refused to surrender the tape, citing advice he received from Wiseley and the tape’s potential importance should the law enforcement investigation be rekindled by new information.

Cory is the first and only person so far who was on the bus to speak publicly about what happened on the ride back from Moorefield. He described his own role in the incident, but was vague about what transpired between the victim and the defendants in the case.

“When the victim got pulled down, I put my hands up to protect myself,” Cory said, adding that he was trying to keep the victim, who had been standing in front of him, from falling on top of him.

Cory described the bus as “pretty dark” at the time of the incident. He and his mother said he was involved for about 30 seconds, but the entire incident lasted longer.

Cory stated that he considered the behavior by his teammates on the bus to be normal exuberance displayed after winning an away game.

“We don’t wrestle around or goof off, but we’re really active and stuff, really loud,” Cory said. “To me, that’s what we were doing, acting normal after an away game that we won.”

Raley said he and the School Board remain determined to obtain the videotape from the Sheriff’s Office before rendering a decision. The Clinedinst case and those of three other students facing disciplinary action were initially scheduled to be heard on March 31 but the hearing was postponed after school officials learned the tape would be unavailable. Raley called the Clinedinsts early in the day to notify them of the delay.

“The School Board wants to be able to provide all of our families with the hearing as they are requesting,” Raley said. “However, the School Board is being held up by the refusal to allow them to have access to all the evidence in this matter.

“As soon as the School Board would have access to that video evidence, we can conduct this hearing and allow the families to share their viewpoints and perspective with the School Board.”

Carter said he is equally determined to resist the School Board’s lawsuit in court. He has hired a Roanoke attorney to represent him. Carter said the attorney will be paid for initially through county funds that will be reimbursed later by the state.

“I can’t release the video when it’s contrary to what the law tells me to do,” Carter said, adding that the ultimate decision on whether or not to release the tape must come from a judge.

Raley said he stood by the suspension imposed on Cory and the recommendations for disciplinary action against other students involved in the incident. Raley reiterated earlier comments he has made that school system rules and disciplinary action and procedures do not necessarily correspond with those of the legal system.

“Our division disciplines students daily,” Raley said. “Simply because we discipline a student does not mean it’s a criminal offense. This case is no different. We are applying our codes as appropriate.”

The lawsuit over the videotape is scheduled for a hearing at 9:30 a.m. April 27 in Rockingham County Circuit Court in Harrisonburg. Judge Thomas Wilson IV is scheduled to hear the case. Shenandoah County Circuit Judge Dennis L. Hupp has recused himself from the case, citing his daughter’s enrollment at Strasburg High School and her participation in school athletics.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com