Attorney: Lawsuit against Brunswick School Department remains an option for victim of bullying

Posted July 15, 2014, at 6:08 p.m.

BRUNSWICK, Maine — A day after the Maine Human Rights Commission found reasonable grounds to determine that the Brunswick School Department discriminated against a former junior high school student who was bullied by other students for more than two years because of his perceived sexual orientation, the boy’s attorney said Tuesday that his family would participate in a mediation process but may still file suit against the school district.

“They certainly have a right to sue,” said Courtney Beers, an attorney with Pine Tree Legal Assistance.

On Monday, the Maine Human Rights Commission voted 3-2 to uphold a report by commission investigator Victoria Ternig that found the Brunswick School Department discriminated against the unnamed student who was harassed and bullied from August 2010 to August 2012, The Forecaster reported.

Ternig wrote that the school department “allowed a hostile education environment to persist for a lengthy period of time,” and that the student was discriminated against on the basis of his “perceived sexual orientation and sex.”

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She wrote that the abuse against the student continued despite the school’s efforts to stop and prevent it.

Beers said in a statement Tuesday that “the most horrific offenses included physical assaults, sexual touching, and sexual assaults.”

She said the boy and his mother reported the bullying and harassment many times to school staff, but felt the situation was “not handled appropriately by school administration.”

“Ultimately the minor was hospitalized and diagnosed with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder as a direct result of the bullying and harassment,” she wrote. “The family felt that they were forced to move to a different town and the minor transferred to another school district.”

In a statement provided by Beers, the boy’s mother wrote, “We are so thankful that the commission was able to sort out fact from fiction and that they are willing to do what the Brunswick School Department and Brunswick Police Department failed to do which is hold some of those responsible accountable. It is unfortunate that it took filing a complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission to get the attention of the superintendent’s office. My request for an appointment in his office was denied by his staff.”

But Brunswick Superintendent of Schools Paul Perzanoski maintained that administrators at Brunswick Junior High School took the complaints seriously and acted quickly.

The school created a response plan that required the boy to stay late or leave class early to avoid hallways crowded with students who might harass him, according to a report in The Times Record. The plan also called for the student to eat lunch in a classroom and to use a private bathroom.

School officials claim that the student did not comply with their plan, according to The Times Record report.

Allegations that the boy had been sexually assaulted by other students were investigated by the Brunswick police and forwarded to the Cumberland County District Attorney’s office, according to Capt. Mark Waltz.

Waltz said Tuesday that the district attorney declined to pursue charges. He said he was prohibited by law from discussing why no charges were filed.

Perzanoski and Greg Bartlett, the assistant superintendent, were on vacation Tuesday. Brunswick School Board Chairwoman Michele Joyce said no member of the board would speak about the case until they had conferred with Perzanoski. She forwarded a statement from the superintendent:

“We are extremely disappointed in the 3-2 vote today and wholeheartedly disagree with the decision,” Perzanoski wrote. “Contrary to the conclusion, Brunswick Junior High School took the complaints seriously and moved quickly and decisively to respond to complaints that were brought to the school’s attention. … In his book, ‘Youth Voice Project,’ well-known expert in the anti-bullying movement Stan Davis uses Brunswick Junior High School as an example of a school doing the right thing to address this issue in Chapter 8. We will continue to review our procedures and practices on this issue and also continue our schoolwide assemblies, staff trainings, and peer mediation.”

Stephanie Galeucia, who coordinates the response to bullying for the Maine Department of Education, said Tuesday that she could not recall whether the department had been notified of this particular instance of bullying, but she said schools were not required to report instances of bullying until this year.

Galeucia said she could not speak specifically to any case.

Following Monday’s vote, the Human Rights Commission, family and school district have 90 days to attempt to resolve the matter through a mediation process, according to Amy Sneirson, executive director of the commission.

Should the case not be resolved to the satisfaction of the commission, Sneirson said commission members could vote to bring suit against the district seeking such remedies as an injunction to stop any practices that are discriminatory or requiring further training for teachers and students. The commission also could seek damages, although Sneirson said that is not typical.

“The commission’s goal in pursuing litigation is to remedy and prevent discrimination,” she said.

 

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