Former South Bend St. Joseph volleyball players accuse school of ignoring sexual misconduct

South Bend Tribune [South Bend IN]

October 30, 2021

By Cory Havens

[Includes copy of lawsuit.]

Three former St. Joseph High School volleyball players have filed a lawsuit against the school, the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend and school officials, accusing their coach of abusive sexual misconduct and administrators of failing to appropriately respond to their allegations during that misconduct.

The women, who graduated in 2018 and 2019 and are suing anonymously as Jane Doe plaintiffs, provide detailed accusations in their court filing.

The lawsuit claims Justin Cochran, 32, sent one of the players pictures of his genitals over the social media platform SnapChat. SnapChat messages disappear after a short time. Jane Doe 3 claims Cochran included explicit details of his sexual escapades and the size of his penis in the message containing the nude photo.

Jane Doe 3 claims she was afraid and unsure what to do, so she blocked Cochran on SnapChat and told two other players what had happened. She claims before sending the illicit message, Cochran had made sexual comments about St. Joseph players, including sexual references to their legs and breasts.

The lawsuit claims some players were concerned as early as the July 2018 promotion of Cochran from assistant coach to head coach, because they feared not making the team if Cochran found them unattractive and feared not receiving playing time if they were not receptive to his flirtatious behavior begun during his time as assistant coach.

St. Joseph Principal John Kennedy and then-Athletic Director Deb Brown are accused of negligent hiring and failure to adequately supervise Cochran, as well as mishandling the accusations against him and failing to report those accusations to authorities as required by Indiana law. Brown left St. Joseph at the end of the 2020-21 school year. The former players claim the school did not perform a background check on Cochran before the hiring, which should have shown his driver’s license had been suspended.

Justin Cochran. File photo
Justin Cochran. File photo

Players said Cochran drove the team bus despite that license suspension for the entire 2018 season. They accuse Cochran of reckless driving, including swerving back and forth to joke as if he was drunk, and of using his cell phone to access pictures of teens while driving.

The lawsuit accuses St. Joseph and the diocese of numerous violations of the 2002 Catholic charter “Safe Environment Training” to protect young people that was instituted in response to the wider Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal. The former players say Cochran was well known before his promotion for Safe Environment violations and inappropriate behavior.

They say parents met with Cochran in July 2018 after his promotion and addressed concerns about his behavior and boundary issues. The lawsuit claims Brown refused to meet with parents at that time and insisted they meet with Cochran themselves.

Cochran allegedly responded to the parents’ concerns by telling them “the age of consent in Indiana is 16,” with parents pointing out Indiana law still prohibits sexual contact with students by someone in a position of trust and authority, such as Cochran.

The parents at the meeting also allegedly asked him to refrain from discussing or encouraging drinking and other inappropriate or suggestive topics with their daughters. The lawsuit claims Cochran responded that he liked to treat the players as equals to keep things light and fun.

The lawsuit claims players and parents witnessed further inappropriate behavior from Cochran going forward, including an inappropriate relationship with a 16-year-old player. 

Jane Doe 1 and 2 claim they confronted Cochran about his continued behavior and asked him to stop. They say in the lawsuit he then began turning other players and students against the complainants.

The lawsuit accuses Brown of refusing to meet with Jane Doe 2’s parents and not allowing them to attend a meeting she had with their daughter. Brown is also accused of “tasking” a 17-year-old student with addressing the accusations on her own with Cochran. Jane Doe 2 claims Brown dismissed the accusations as “girl drama.” 

Brown is accused of instructing Jane Doe 1 and 2 to conduct their own team meeting and refusing their request that she attend that meeting.

The lawsuit claims parents repeatedly made Principal Kennedy aware of their complaints about Cochran’s behavior and Brown’s lack of supervision. Jane Doe 1’s parents say they asked Kennedy for help formally filing a complaint of Safe Environment Training violations. They claim Kennedy said he was taking their information down for them.

The lawsuit claims parents and players at a Sept. 11, 2018, game against Riley High  School witnessed an underclass member of the team “twerking” inches from a smiling Cochran during warmups, and another underclass teammate lounging against Cochran. The lawsuit claims Kennedy agreed that behavior was inappropriate.

The lawsuit also alleges systemic violations of the Safe Environment Training requirement that reports of misconduct be treated confidentially, resulting in widespread rumors and retaliation from Cochran and an assistant coach.

The lawsuit accuses Cochran of “stalking” a 16-year-old member of the team, causing her to block him on social media after messages about her in a bikini and saying, “you are tempting me.” This behavior was allegedly discussed by team members on their way to play at Bremen High School in 2019, after Cochran had left St. Joseph, because players anticipated seeing him again as the new Bremen coach.

The lawsuit claims St. Joseph and diocesan officials of letting Cochran resign after the 2018 season, in which he was named Northern Indiana Conference coach of the year, rather than face consequences for his misconduct. Cochran went to coach Bremen in the 2019 and 2020 seasons. The Tribune could not determine Saturday if Cochran coached this season.

Efforts to reach Kennedy on Saturday were unsuccessful.