He made history as a college football player with Down syndrome. Now, he's suing his school

Late in the third quarter in the Hocking College football team's game against Sussex Community College on Sept. 11, 2021, kicker Caden Cox's number was called. The ball was snapped, and Cox sent it soaring between the goal posts, cementing his place in history as the first college football player with Down syndrome to score.

Now, Cox is suing the school, its president and several others in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio alleging discrimination, assault, retaliation and that administrators failed to protect him from a hostile and discriminatory work environment.

Hocking College, in Nelsonville, Ohio, did not respond to a request for comment.

A sign reads "Hocking College." Apartment buildings and a forested hill are on the horizon.
A sign marks the entrance of Hocking College in Nelsonville, Ohio. (Jay LaPrete / Associated Press)

“The last thing we wanted was a lawsuit,” Mari Cox, Caden Cox's mother, said in a statement. “This college has been a major part of our lives. Caden had a great experience before this happened. We just felt like our complaints to administrators went nowhere.”

According to the lawsuit, Caden Cox's boss at the Student Center and Campus Recreation verbally and physically harassed him. Matthew Kmosko, who was hired in June 2021, used the R-word and other derogatory language around Cox and yelled at and berated him in front of other employees, the suit alleged, adding that he also asked Cox for hugs and looked through his phone without permission.

The lawsuit also detailed harassment complaints made by three other student-employees about Kmosko, who it said was hired directly by the college president, Betty Young, as a favor to a board trustee and without a customary background check. That background check would have revealed domestic violence charges from 2010 through 2016 in Florida, according to the lawsuit.

Young and the board failed to protect Cox, the lawsuit alleges, by neglecting to run a background check on Kmosko and or address complaints against his conduct, which created a hostile and discriminatory workplace environment. The school officials retaliated against him after he complained, the suit alleged.

Cox “suffered and continues to suffer extreme emotional trauma and suffering as evidenced by heightened anxiety, fear, insomnia, nightmares, and depression," the lawsuit claimed.

Cox’s mother filed a complaint with human resources in July 2021. At least two written notices describing Kmosko’s behavior toward Cox had already been delivered to Young and Hocking College, according to the lawsuit.

In January 2022, Cox's mother emailed another complaint and asked that Kmosko be replaced as her son’s supervisor, saying he called her son the R-word, took his phone and put his hands on Cox inappropriately. Cox was given a new supervisor, but Kmosko’s behavior escalated, the lawsuit alleged.

According to the lawsuit, on May 12, 2022, Kmosko followed Cox into the men’s room, where he went to change the garbage bags. Kmosko blocked the exit and “began to scream at [Cox] that he told him to change the trash while pointing a black-handled, silver knife” at Cox’s chest, the suit claimed.

Cox returned to the front desk shaken, then Kmosko called him and said, “I see you through the window. Get up and do something,” before hanging up, according to the lawsuit.

Security camera footage shows Kmosko walking in and out of the bathroom carrying a weapon, the lawsuit said. Cox's family filed a report with Hocking College police, and Kmosko was charged and convicted of menacing. Kmosko was permitted to resign from his position, and his personnel file does not contain any records or complaints against his behavior — including the knife incident, the lawsuit alleged.

“Since that incident, [Cox] has continued to suffer from trauma and its manifestations,” the lawsuit alleged. Cox no longer felt safe on campus, and often became upset when he spotted a red car on campus, similar to the color Kmosko drove. Despite assurances from the university president, Cox was removed from his job in the student center and reassigned to a job performing reenactments outside that was not medically safe for him and made him uncomfortable.

Cox faced other “clear” retaliation, according to the suit. Though Cox received enough votes to win three awards for fall graduates, a week after his lawyers sent Young a letter detailing the claims of discrimination, harassment and assault, his father — also an employee at Hocking — noticed he was listed to receive only one award.

Kevin Cox later learned that his son had been stripped of his awards by university staff, namely the president, the suit alleged.

“Young and other Hocking College administrators’ blatant and egregious retaliation against [Cox], a graduating student athlete with Down syndrome, is evident from the timeline of events that led to Hocking College taking two of his awards away the day before his graduation,” the suit alleged.

Cox is seeking a jury trial, compensatory and punitive damages, and for the school to enact and follow policies protecting students from harassment, abuse and discriminatory conduct.

According to his lawyer, Cox is expected to enroll in a postsecondary transitional program for students with disabilities at the Ohio State University in the fall.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.