Before she set foot in Taylor high school as a freshman, she had heard about Coach Lynn Stroud. The best-looking coach at the school, she was told. If you get into his biology class, one boy said, “all you have to do is wear a miniskirt and a smile and you’ll get an A.” In his Lee jeans and button-down shirts, Coach Stroud would wander the halls between classes, cracking jokes, slapping kids’ backs, casually throwing his arm around a student. “He came on as the kids’ best friend,” a teenage girl told a police officer in Taylor, a town of 11,000 people 35 miles northeast of Austin. “He tried to fix any problem you had, like grades in another class, or he’d talk to you about your boyfriend problems. He’d let us take his truck anytime we asked him, knowing we didn’t have our driver’s licenses.
The freshman, a pretty blonde and only fourteen years old, had to admit that she was excited when she saw on her schedule that Stroud would be her fourth-period biology teacher. He assigned her a seat in the first row. For a few weeks, everything was normal. Then she got back a test paper with a note. “You did real good,” it read. A few days later, he sent another note. “Hi, you look pretty today.” Finally, shielding a sheet of notebook paper with her arm so none of her classmates would see it, the girl wrote bak to Stroud. “How are you today? You look nice.”
It was the autumn of 1986, and what was about to take place—the seduction of a student by a teacher—would become the basis for a controversial precedent-setting lawsuit that has made its way from one federal court to another and, in October, up to the Supreme Court. The fate of Jane Doe, as the girl is called in court documents, has been debated by some of the country’s most distinguished jurists, all of whom have tried to determine just who is at fault for allowing a teenage student to fall under the spell of a forty-year-old man. In her lawsuit against the Taylor Independent School District, Jane Doe has blamed both the high school principal and the superintendent of schools for not trying to stop Stroud when it became obvious that the coach was making sexual advances. But according to one petition before the Supreme Court, her case is opening a flood of lawsuits by students against their teachers and administrators. School officials nationwide claim that her lawsuit will make them liable for millions of dollars in damages if they do not spend their days tracking down every sexual rumor about what a faculty member might be doing with a student. Taylor school officials insist they did everything they could to protect the girl and to investigate Stroud (who still lives near Taylor and would not comment for this article). “Every time we asked if they were having a relationship, they kept denying it,” says former Taylor High School principal Eddy Lankford. “So why am I now the one who is liable in court for not finding out about it? Why is it my fault that the girl didn’t want to tell anyone?”
For this article, Jane Doe, who now lives in a Texas city that she requested not be disclosed, has agreed to identify herself for the first time. Her name is Brooke Graham and she is 22 years old, working part-time, and finishing a college degree. “It seems like every time the case goes to court again, someone is ripping apart my reputation,” Brooke says, blinking back tears. “God, I had no idea what I was getting into.”
As in any small Texas town, high school football is a vital part of Taylor’s life. Throughout the eighties, the Taylor Ducks were good enough to make the state playoffs almost every year, and it was hard to find a Taylor citizen who did not know the team’s win-loss record. It was also hard to find anyone who did not know the cheerful Lynn Stroud, the defensive coordinator for the Ducks. At a popular Taylor restaurant, Louie Mueller Bar-B-Q, Stroud would never hesitate to sit down with the townsfolk and talk football. He liked chaperoning school dances, chatting with parents, keeping an eye on the kids. He organized the town’s first chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Since his 1981 arrival in Taylor, after a series of coaching jobs in other small-town high schools, Stroud had developed a reputation as a coach who motivated more through friendship than by authority. He’d take players camping twenty miles from town on his farm, where he lived with his wife and three children. He worked out with his players. He took them out to lunch on game day. It was not unusual to see Stroud’s pickup in the field house parking lot late at night. Everyone just assumed he was working, perhaps studying fame films of opposing teams.
Administrators gave Stroud flowing evaluations for his teaching of freshman biology. They noted in their written reports that he expertly taught students how to locate cells on a slide and the differences between DNA and RNA. They seemed impressed that he subscribed to Omni, Discover, and Science Teacher. But students were telling a different story. At the start of the year, they said, Stroud liked to pick out a few pretty girls and make them his teacher’s pets. The girls were allowed to grade the class’s test papers and put whatever mark they wished in Stroud’s grade book. They didn’t have to do their homework, and they could walk out of class and go to the rest room whenever they wanted. If they wanted a tardy pass so they could be late to another class, he’d write it for them. Meanwhile, Stroud would make the wallflower girls and the boys—well, at least those who weren’t stars on the football team—do all the assigned work.