In a bizarre scenario, the Kingfisher Public Schools Board of Education held a special meeting today inside a federal courtroom so three elected members could participate in settlement discussions with a prominent family’s son whose 2021 lawsuit alleges that a culture of hazing and abuse in the school’s successful football program led to him being the victim of coach-encouraged bullying and sexual assault.
Magistrate Judge Suzanne Mitchell, who serves the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma, told the parties she was unaware a public school board meeting had been called in her courtroom or that its agenda included a potential action item “to approve or not approve settlement of Mecklenburg v. Kingfisher Ind. Sch. Dist. No. 7 of Kingfisher County, et al.”
Mitchell said she had requested that a majority of the board attend Wednesday’s court-ordered settlement conference, which would have violated the Oklahoma Open Meeting Act had the board not called the special meeting.
Mason Mecklenburg, now an Oklahoma State University student, sat before Mitchell clad in a light blue blazer and surrounded by his attorneys. Nearby, his parents sat in the courtroom’s jury box. Opposite the Mecklenburgs sat Kingfisher defendants — including head football coach Jeff Myers, a current assistant coach and former assistants — and their attorneys. Inducted into the Oklahoma Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2021, months after Mecklenburg filed his lawsuit anonymously, Myers is accused of perpetuating a culture of hazing and abuse that amounted to “torture” against Mecklenburg during his four years on the team.
In the courtroom gallery, three members of the Kingfisher Board of Education — President Charles Walker, Vice President Carly Franks and Brad Wittrock — sat with the district’s superintendent in anticipation of the settlement conference.
“Discussions today are completely confidential,” Mitchell told the two dozen people in attendance before asking NonDoc journalists to clear the room.
NonDoc alerted Mitchell that the KPS board had announced a special public meeting to be held at the courthouse, although it was unclear if the board actually undertook the machinations of convening a meeting. NonDoc asked if the board was going into executive session for the day’s discussion, as listed on the agenda.
Mitchell instructed the board’s attorney — Eric Janzen of Rosenstein Fist & Ringold — to discuss the situation with his clients. After a brief conference, board members spoke softly amongst themselves and approved a motion to enter an executive session at 11:48 a.m.
The attorneys and Mitchell had further discussions about the board’s legal obligation to conduct its special meeting in adherence to the Oklahoma Open Meeting Act, which Mitchell encouraged them to follow.
After an initial conversation among all parties, the Mecklenburgs and their attorneys sat in Mitchell’s courtroom by themselves for much of Wednesday afternoon’s settlement conference. In a separate room, Mitchell discussed matters with KPS board members, Myers and the assistant coaches, along with their respective attorneys.
In their various settlement offers to the school district, the Mecklenburgs have requested an end to Myers’ employment with KPS and monetary damages. Discussions have also involved the implementation of a robust anti-bullying policy to be approved by the KPS board, which held its regular monthly meeting Monday.
‘A settlement was not reached’
When Wednesday’s settlement conference concluded about six hours later, three KPS board members returned to open session, announced that no action had been taken during their executive session settlement conference and quickly voted to adjourn. Myers, the other coaches, the Mecklenburgs and Mitchell were not in attendance when the board concluded its meeting.
Janzen confirmed that KPS board members held the unusual meeting because they believed compliance with the Open Meeting Act was important in a scenario where the day’s court-ordered settlement conference involved a quorum of the board.
“A settlement was not reached,” Janzen said shortly before 6 p.m. outside the William J. Holloway Jr. U.S. Courthouse in downtown Oklahoma City.
Cameron Spradling, the lead attorney representing Mason Mecklenburg, said he could not discuss the situation in much detail because of “really strict rules” about the settlement conference ordered by U.S. District Court Judge Charles Goodwin.
“It’s obvious they don’t want to fire this coach,” Spradling said. “That is the first requirement, and that cannot be met by Kingfisher Public Schools.”
KPS board members Walker, Franks and Wittrock — as well as new KPS Superintendent David Glover — declined to comment on the lawsuit as they left the courthouse Wednesday.
Mason Mecklenburg filed the lawsuit in late July 2021, one day before his 19th birthday. The timing allowed Spradling to file the case under the name John Doe, although Mecklenburg’s identity as the plaintiff was widely known among members of the Kingfisher community. Spradling amended the petition May 17 to include Mecklenburg’s identity in the lawsuit following a judge’s denial of a motion to retain his anonymity.
If the civil lawsuit is not settled, dropped or dismissed, a jury trial is set to begin Tuesday, Dec. 5.
An Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation inquiry into the Kingfisher allegations remained open as of June, according to agency officials. The Oklahoma State Department of Education also has an outstanding inquiry into the allegations at Kingfisher Public Schools.
‘I wanted to be a part of that culture’
(Editor’s note: In November 2021, Mason Mecklenburg and his father, Justin, spoke to NonDoc about the lawsuit, which was filed anonymously under the name “John Doe” at the time. Weeks later, Justin Mecklenburg asked that quotes from the interview be published without identifying his family, but NonDoc declined to publish the interview anonymously owing to broad public knowledge of the plaintiff’s identity in Kingfisher County. With a judge’s ruling causing the Mecklenburgs to reveal their identities in the lawsuit more than 16 months later, comments from the 2021 interview appear here for the first time.)
When Mason Mecklenburg finished his eighth-grade year, he was eager to join Kingfisher’s storied high school football program in 2017.
“I was super excited going in because, you know, middle school football is fun, but everyone looks forward to the Friday night lights and getting to play in front of not just a hundred fans, but a thousand or so,” Mecklenburg said.
While the boys basketball program has also become popular and successful in Kingfisher, Mecklenburg said playing on the high school football team was about more than just the game to the town of about 5,000 people.
“We were just a football school,” Mecklenburg told NonDoc on Nov. 26, 2021. “We bred football. That’s all we did is football, and so I wanted to be a part of that culture. I didn’t know the culture, really, but I wanted to be a part of that.”
Mecklenburg said he encountered a culture that met him with open hostility.
While noting that freshmen on the team often endured regular torment from older players — including whippings with towels cut into strips — Mecklenburg said his abuse continued into his sophomore, junior and senior years. He said it was tolerated, encouraged and perpetuated by the coaches.
“The seniors would come in with their towels, and they basically would just go to town on you,” Mecklenburg said. “I remember one time they opened the curtain to me and it was me and there’s like, two of them — two or three of them — and the rest are just watching, and they’re just whipping me, and I can’t do anything. So I just fall in the corner and I’m just, like, facing the wall. So they don’t, you know, hit my private area or anything. And they’re just going at my back and my butt and stuff. That was a pretty common theme. I wouldn’t say that happened every day, but I would say that happened at least once a week. That happened a lot. That was pretty bad.”
The Mecklenburgs have been a prominent family in Kingfisher for multiple generations. Randy Mecklenburg, Mason’s grandfather, served for years as a municipal judge in Kingfisher. Justin Mecklenburg, Mason’s father, is the CEO of an energy infrastructure insulation company called Neoinsulation. He is also president of Mecklenburg Capital Management.
Some of the abuse Mason Mecklenburg faced seemed to be borne from resentment toward his family, he said.
“It really did hurt me,” Mecklenburg said of his experience on the Kingfisher football team. “But also it just should not happen to anyone else because it’s been a history. It’s been a culture. And it just needs to stop.”
Mecklenburg said he was a frequent target of physical, emotional and — once — sexual abuse from players on the team who were encouraged by the coaching staff. While his claims are under investigation by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, he has been waging the federal civil lawsuit for months.
The lawsuit began in Kingfisher County District Court but was moved to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma. In addition to the school district, defendants include head coach Jeff Myers, current assistant coach Derek Patterson, former assistant coach Blake Eaton and former assistant coach Micah Nall. (After a prior criminal investigation into how an offensive lineman on the Kingfisher football team was repeatedly hit by his teammates during a controversial “bull in the ring” drill, Nall pleaded guilty to obstructing a police officer and agreed not to coach in any capacity for one year.)
Faced with Mecklenburg’s lawsuit, the school district’s board rejected one settlement offer in March 2022 and did not respond to a second this May. In their filed arguments, the “school district defendants deny each and every allegation contained in plaintiff’s first amended petition.”
“The school district defendants assert that plaintiff has failed to establish he has suffered a recognized deprivation,” attorneys representing the district and the coaches — except Nall — wrote. “Plaintiff has failed to establish that any conduct by the school district defendants rises to a level sufficient to ‘shock the conscience.’ (…) The school district defendants have not breached any duty owed to plaintiff.”
Both legal teams were in the federal courthouse May 18 for a hearing on the plaintiff’s motion to compel discovery. A subsequent mediation between the parties on July 11 ended with disagreement over “a number,” Mitchell said during her opening remarks Wednesday.
‘This man breathed death into so many different kids’
In his November 2021 interview, Mason Mecklenburg described one incident during his sophomore year that he said underscored the Kingfisher coaches’ hostility toward him.
As he was heading out to practice one day, Mecklenburg said he started to get a bad feeling when he noticed all of the players and coaches watching him walk through the parking lot. As he started jogging to the field, one of the senior players jumped up in the bed of a pickup and “unloaded” on Mecklenburg with a paintball gun, hitting him approximately 10 times, including on areas of his body not covered with pads.
“I was furious,” Mecklenburg said. “Because first of all, it’s embarrassing because everyone’s kind of laughing at me.”
Mecklenburg said he expected the coaching staff to punish the senior for distracting the team during a big game week, but he said they simply laughed before starting practice.
“And then I’m looking at the coaches, and (…) they’re just loving it. They’re just laughing, having a great time,” Mecklenburg said.
Mecklenburg also said some players routinely shot at him with the paintball gun and hit him with a Taser in the locker room.
Mecklenburg also described instances where Myers or other coaches singled him out for unfairly orchestrated drills or for a wrestling circle in the locker room that happened multiple times per week, where the door would be locked to prevent anyone else from witnessing the event.
Mecklenburg also recounted a game during his junior year in which he did not play owing to a hand surgery he had undergone earlier that day. Despite his doctor’s recommendation to stay home, Mecklenburg traveled with the team to Bethany to cheer on his friends.
According to Mecklenburg, Myers blamed him during his halftime speech for Kingfisher’s 22-point deficit, saying his mishandling of equipment before a missed field goal kick had hurt their momentum.
“I was like, ‘Coach, I shouldn’t even be here right now. I mean, I’m literally on [anesthesia] still,'” Mecklenburg said of the incident.
Mecklenburg said one incident during his sophomore year particularly harmed him mentally. As he was walking through the locker room, Mecklenburg said other players tackled him and held him down while a naked senior linebacker sat down on his face.
“That traumatized me pretty bad,” Mecklenburg said, adding that he then endured weeks of taunts about the incident from other players.
In the November 2021 interview, Justin Mecklenburg, Mason’s father, said he did not learn of that incident until after Mason graduated. He expressed regret that he did not act more quickly in prior seasons when he realized his son was being hazed and bullied.
“I’ve been married for 23 years, and this has come this close to causing my wife and I to divorce because she wanted to do something,” Justin Mecklenburg said, pausing briefly to cry. “She wanted to do something about it, and I feared what would happen to Mason in the locker room if we did. And so I kept telling her, ‘No, it’ll get better. It’ll get better. It’ll get better.’ And she was right. His freshman year, I should have gone to the cops.”
Justin Mecklenburg offered deep criticism of Myers.
“I honestly believe that, as a coach, you have the opportunity to either breathe life into kids or you breathe death into kids,” he said. “It is an incredible opportunity to be a coach, and this man breathed death into so many different kids.”
Settlement offers rejected, gag order sought on Spradling
Since filing the lawsuit on behalf of Mason Mecklenburg, Spradling and his team have made three settlement offers to Kingfisher Public Schools. Each included a demand that the district fire Myers.
The Kingfisher Public Schools Board of Education unanimously voted to reject the first offer for $1.5 million in March 2022.
After a lengthy executive session at their meeting May 1 of this year to discuss Spradling’s second offer to settle for $5 million (embedded below), board members authorized the district’s attorneys “to take all necessary actions to respond to the plaintiff’s settlement offer consistent with the board of education’s discussion in executive session.”
After the May 1 meeting, KPS Superintendent David Glover clarified that “no decision was made” by the board regarding the offer.
Spradling said after the May 18 hearing that the district had not taken any action to date on his settlement offer, which has since increased to $10 million in addition to Myers’ firing.
“My personal feeling is this — that board doesn’t really want to make a move,” Spradling said. “Their action is inaction.”
In May, Myers changed attorneys, switching from the law firm Rosenstein, Fist and Ringold to Joe White. Myers was hired as Kingfisher’s high school football coach in 2004, one season after the district won a state championship. Myers, who appeared in court Wednesday wearing navy slacks and a light blue dress shirt, led the Yellowjackets to another state championship in 2013.
Spradling said in May that, as a result of the case and Mecklenberg coming forward, other former players who faced an abusive culture have also given testimony to support the case. Earlier this week, Spradling filed subpoenas to depose other former KPS football players, including Myers’ son and one of former Superintendent Jason Sternberger’s sons.
In May, Judge Charles Goodwin denied the district’s motion to place Spradling under a gag order, a request that had been pending for more than a year. The denial led to Spradling being more open in his public comments about the case. However, the district’s attorneys have filed a motion for the gag order to be reconsidered following various comments made by Spradling on Twitter.
“Mr. Spradling’s continued Twitter activity and statements to the news media are an obvious attempt to try his case in the public in an effort to pressure the defendants into settlement,” the district’ attorneys wrote. “Unfortunately, these statements by Mr. Spradling are often misrepresentations or exaggerated accounts of this case. These statements are extremely damaging to not only the defendants in this case, but defendants’ counsel. While the defendants realize that they also have the ability to make statements to the media, the defendants should not have to constantly monitor Mr. Spradling’s social media and should not have to try their side of the case outside of the courtroom in an effort to counter Mr. Spradling’s activities.”
‘There shouldn’t be another kid that has to go through this’
The lawsuit has roiled and divided Kingfisher, a 5,000-person town about an hour northwest of Oklahoma City where high school sports are king.
In his November 2021 interview, Mason Mecklenburg said that, despite the abuse, he stuck with the football program for four years because he wanted to take part in Kingfisher football’s communal culture.
Now that he knows the pernicious details of that culture, Mecklenburg said he does not want anyone else to have to experience it.
“There shouldn’t be another kid that has to go through this,” Mecklenburg said.
The end of the board of education’s May 1 meeting seemed to exemplify that culture while showing the strain the case has put on the town.
Many current players on the football team attended the meeting to show support for Myers. The players and other community members who filled the room sat quietly through the meeting, listening intently as board members took routine action and then seemingly took no action in response to the settlement offer.
At the end of the meeting, Glover, who declined to give specific details on discussions about the offer, announced that the boys soccer team had won its first-ever playoff game that evening.
The audience offered a subdued cheer before filing out of the room.
(Correction: This article was updated at 9:50 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 9, to correct reference to a soccer playoff game and a date related to a filing in the litigation. It was updated again at 11:11 a.m. Wednesday, Aug. 23, to correct reference to the title of Magistrate Judge Suzanne Mitchell.)