Suit against former VSU president in jury’s hands

February 1, 2013

VALDOSTA — Over five years have passed since Hayden Barnes learned of his expulsion from Valdosta State University by a letter slipped under his dorm-room door, and now, with closing arguments wrapped on Wednesday, the trial moves into its fifth day as jurors work to determine whether Dr. Ronald Zaccari, previous university president, was justified in his termination of Barnes.

Barnes was administratively withdrawn from VSU during May of 2007, after engaging in a battle against Zaccari over the then-proposed parking decks between Oak Street and Sustella Avenue. Barnes had lobbied for more alternatives to the parking project, reasoning that the proposed location and size of the two decks would encourage students to drive more.

A dialogue had been opened between the two before the expulsion, but their first meeting happened to be on the day a lone shooter forever changed Virginia Tech (April 16, 2007).

David Will, Zaccari’s attorney, harked back to testimony from the university’s communication director who likened the Virginia Tech shooting to 911 for university systems. At that point, safety and security became an even greater priority on campuses around the country, stated Will.

Barnes posted a political cartoon on Facebook that depicted the proposed parking deck and bore the labeled, “S.A.V.E. – Zaccari Memorial Parking Garage.” Use of the term “memorial” prompted Zaccari to fear for his life, according to his counsel, especially with details of the Virginia Tech shooting still dominating news outlets.

The story begins on March 22 and not on April 16, advocated Attorney Robert Corn-Revere on Barnes’ behalf. Zaccari was stonewalled by students in the past when he attempted to convert the University’s iconic front lawn into a parking lot, and feared that Barnes’ protests would jeopardize the parking deck, said Corn-Revere.

“I think Hayden is a very bright guy who chooses his words carefully,” said Will. “What do we think of when we hear the word memorial? Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King Jr.  Memorial and so on. We memorialize dead people. It means one thing and one thing alone.  It was a threat. Was Dr. Z scared? Yes. And was there any testimony or evidence to the contrary? No.”

Zaccari was looking for any route he could find to dismiss Barnes, according to Corn-Revere, although no one, including the university police chief, found any information about Barnes that would classify the junior transfer as a threat.

“When Dr. Zaccari testified, he said Barnes was under-performing and doesn’t know why he was ever admitted to the university,” said Corn-Revere. “Why would Dr. Zaccari know that much about a single student. It’s because he wanted a way to get rid of this particular student and had been spending large amounts of time analyzing Hayden’s background and surveilling him.”

When Barnes’ grades began improving, Zaccari looked for other ways to get rid of him and began focusing on the e-mails and the political cartoon, said Corn-Revere. And on a day deemed the 911 of university systems, Barnes and Zaccari held a meeting to discuss the parking deck, stated Corn-Revere.

“It’s absurd for the defense to use the Virginia Tech shooting as a reason for Dr. Zaccari’s action,” said Corn-Revere after turning to lock eyes with Zaccari. “That’s like using the victims of that tragedy as a human shield here in court. Don’t let this man get away with that.”

Should the jury rule against Zaccari, Will said he should be awarded $1 in nominal damages because Zaccari doesn’t deserve to be punished and Barnes is undeserving of compensation for lost wages and emotional distress. Barnes’ parents paid all of his tuition, his girlfriend covered his rent and no doctors testified to his suffering as a result of the dismissal, stated Will.

“As Dr. Zaccari testified, he had been an administrator for 47 years before retiring — he came back to VSU to lead,” said Will. “Dr. Zaccari balanced out the rights of this young man with his own safety concerns. The plaintiff’s counsel tells you they want justice, but what they really want is money. Justice works both ways, and it would be wrong to return an unfavorable verdict against Dr. Zaccari.”

There was a possibility that Barnes could return to VSU, according to Con-Revere, but the conditions were steep as Barnes would have had to consult regularly with a therapist throughout the remainder of his time at the school.

“The defense would have us believe that this young man should send a fruit basket to Dr. Zaccari because Hayden is now in law school, he has a beautiful wife and they have a baby on the way,” said Corn-Revere. “Dr. Zaccari said he gave Hayden the opportunity to leave, and that’s like an employer firing someone and saying they did it to give the ex-employee the opportunity for a career change.”

The verdict is expected to be returned today.