LAKE TRAVIS, Texas (KXAN) — Less than a year after Lake Travis ISD created its first district police department, a Lakeway family is exploring legal action over how the district and newly formed agency are operating.
On Thursday, Feb. 24, Kirk Offel, the father of three LTISD High School students, said his wife called and told him their then-16-year-old son needed medical attention following an incident that occurred during wrestling practice.
Offel said they immediately went to the hospital and learned his son’s jaw was broken on both sides and required surgery, according to medical records.
“This wasn’t an accident,” Offel said.
LTISD’s administrative investigation
Offel told KXAN he contacted the school the day after the incident and was informed that an administrative investigation would be completed within eight to 10 days.
According to the LTISD administrative investigation into the incident, Offel’s son was in wrestling practice when a teammate approached him, put him in a chokehold and lifted him off the ground until he was unconscious. Then, the teammate dropped him on the ground and ran out of the room.
KXAN found the student-wrestler accused of choking Offel’s son is an 18-year-old senior who wrestles in the 220-pound weight class. Offel’s son wrestles in the 132-pound weight class, according to Texas district wrestling records.
KXAN is not naming students because those involved are underage and because most do not face criminal charges.
The administration’s investigation described the incident as “somewhat of a culmination of the conflict,” after LTISD learned that Offel’s son and the 18-year-old had a history of not getting along.
The two students’ history included an altercation the previous day on Wednesday, Feb. 23. The LTISD administrative investigation showed, at that time, the 16-year-old punched the 18-year-old in the face, resulting in a bloody nose. The wrestling coach told administrators, when he became involved, both students denied anything happened.
According to the administration’s report, nothing had ever been reported to the LTISD administration until Offel’s son’s jaw was broken.
The investigation found “the environment in wrestling over the course of the year has been too lax.” The report stated, “on both Wednesday and Thursday, the coaches were otherwise occupied.”
According to Offel, the school informed him the senior was removed from the wrestling period and the students were asked to sign a stay-away agreement.
“That was it. I felt there was a lack of urgency and concern for my kids’ safety,” Offel said. “We didn’t know what else to do, so we went to file a police report.”
LTISD Police Department investigation
According to Offel, he initially went to the Lakeway Police Department to file a police report, but Lakeway PD rejected his report and informed him the matter fell under the jurisdiction of the newly formed Lake Travis ISD Police Department.
Offel contacted the LTISD Police Department and requested to file a police report for what he considered an assault on his son, according to email records Offel provided KXAN.
This is the first year LTISD has had its own police department after the LTISD Board of Trustees unanimously voted to develop and fund it through the district’s 2018 bond program. Prior to the new police department, LTISD contracted with the Travis County Sheriff’s Office for school resource officers.
On March 1, six days after the incident occurred, LTISD Chief Andy Michael, Officer Donnie Williamson and Officer Todd Sumrall began investigating, according to email records Offel provided.
According to Texas Commission on Law Enforcement records, each of these officers have more than 20 years of law enforcement experience. Their current role at LTISD is their first school-based law enforcement position. Chief Michael and Officer Williamson both spent more than 20 years with the Austin Police Department.
Offel provided KXAN with the email he received from Chief Michael on March 22 informing him that the investigation involving his son as a victim had been closed and that criminal charges were not being filed.
Chief Michael’s email stated:
“After a very thorough investigation, the facts of this case and the events leading up to it were presented to a Travis County Assistant County Attorney (ACA) for review. After a review of the facts, the County Attorney’s office has advised they will not accept the case for prosecution. In other words, the ACA has determined that the facts of the case, and the totality of the circumstances surrounding it, are not strong enough to support a successful prosecution. Due to the ruling by the ACA, the criminal investigation is being closed exceptionally – prosecution declined.”
“It was disappointing but not surprising,” Offel said.
Nearly a week after Offel learned about the status of the investigation, he received another email from Chief Michael titled “Arrest Warrants” informing him that three arrest warrants had been issued against his son, accusing him of assaulting three teammates, according to emails Offel provided KXAN.
The email from Chief Michael stated:
“I am writing to let you know that during the course of the investigation regarding your son, several students have alleged they have been physically assaulted. Three of those students (or parents) opted to pursue criminal charges. The investigating officers gathered the facts and presented them to a Travis County Magistrate who determined there was probable cause and issued three arrest warrants. All three warrants are for Assault with Injury – Class A Misdemeanor.”
In lieu of arresting Offel’s son at the school, Chief Michael offered Offel the opportunity to schedule a “walk-through” at Gardner Betts Juvenile Detention Center with an LTISD officer, which would allow Offel’s son to be processed and released in a more discrete and timely manner, according to Chief Michael’s email.
According to records Offel provided KXAN, the three students included the 18-year-old involved in the incident that led to Offel’s son broken jaw, the 18-year-old’s younger brother, and a third student on the wrestling team.
KXAN spoke to the third student’s father who told KXAN he never initially sought to file a police report against Offel’s son after an incident occurred nearly six months prior.
His son reported the incident to LTISD police during an interview related to the Feb. 24 incident involving Offel’s son and the 18-year-old, according to the father. He said his decision to pursue criminal charges now was primarily due to the fact that the LTISD administration did not impose any disciplinary actions after it became aware of the earlier incident involving his son.
“I think we can all agree this entire situation could have been prevented and that the district has failed to address behavior that has clearly gotten out of control,” the parent said.
According to LTISD’s administration, one of the correction actions it is taking following its investigation is “setting expectations with staff on student discipline, student behavior management, and the overall environment in wrestling.”
The father of the other two students has not responded to KXAN’s request, but we will update this story if he does.
Summary of LTISD police actions and KXAN’s investigation
Following is an outline of the four incidents that occurred during LTISD High School wrestling practice resulting in three assault charges, according to the district’s administrative report and LTISD Police arrest affidavits:
In an effort to understand the circumstances surrounding why criminal charges were filed against Offel’s son but not pursued against the 18-year-old, KXAN asked LTISD what its standard procedure is for pursuing criminal charges against its students and requested the LTISD police investigation file related to the incidents.
In response, LTISD stated, “it does not have ‘standard procedures’ for pursuing criminal charges. Lake Travis ISD does not have the authority to make decisions to pursue criminal charges. Instead, it is the State of Texas, acting through the county or district attorney’s office that determines whether to file criminal charges.”
LTISD forwarded KXAN’s request for the investigation file to the Texas Attorney General’s Office for a ruling to determine whether LTISD is required to release this information in accordance with the Texas Public Information Act. KXAN is currently waiting for the AG’s ruling on its request for LTISD’s police investigation.
KXAN spoke with Lucio Del Toro, First Assistant with the Travis County Attorney’s Office regarding the statement provided by the Lake Travis Police Department. The County Attorney’s office was unable to provide comments on the specific details of the case or its communications with LTISD police.
However, Del Toro told KXAN that the County Attorney’s Office received a phone call from LTISD police, but it never received a case file or records to review and it did not make a ruling on whether to prosecute, as Chief Michael’s email stated.
Del Toro explained, “it does not make ‘rulings,’ on cases but does provide legal guidance when requested. Final determinations on whether probable cause exists and whether cases should be referred for prosecution are left to the discretion of law enforcement officers, per office policy.”
The Travis County District Attorney’s office, which is the office that oversees juvenile cases, confirmed to KXAN it is reviewing the cases against Offel’s son. The DA’s office dismissed one of the three assault charges but moved forward with filing petitions against Offel’s son on two charges, according to court records.
Offel has now hired three separate attorneys to assist him with his son’s case: a criminal defense attorney, a personal injury attorney and a school law attorney.
According to court records, Offel filed a personal injury lawsuit against the 18-year-old and Offel told KXAN the school law attorney is exploring possible civil rights violations against his son.
Last month, Offel and his criminal defense attorney formally requested a third-party independent investigation into what happened leading to Offel’s son’s broken jaw.
The criminal defense attorney’s letter stated, “After practicing criminal law in Travis County for over 26 years, as both a prosecutor and defense attorney, I cannot remember a criminal case with so many indicators of either incompetence or intentional deception. Simply put, the ‘investigation’ conducted by LTISD police officers has, at a minimum, the appearance of impropriety.”
LTISD told KXAN it agreed to conduct a third-party, independent investigation to ensure an objective and thorough review. LTISD further stated, “We would like to assure our students, parents, and the community that the District takes these concerns very seriously, and LTISD will take action accordingly once the investigation is complete.”
“I will do everything I can until justice is served and this system is fixed,” Offel said.