May 26, 2018
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Former Brunswick student sues over alleged bullying, sexual assault

By Beth Brogan, BDN Staff

BRUNSWICK, Maine — The attorney for a former Brunswick Junior High School student, who claimed he was physically and sexually assaulted and discriminated against based on his sex and sexual orientation, filed a lawsuit in federal court on Tuesday claiming his civil rights were violated.

The Maine Human Rights Commission, which in June 2014 voted to uphold its investigator’s report substantiating the complaints, has joined the suit as a plaintiff “to ensure that Brunswick has in place effective measures to prevent a hostile education environment based on sex and sexual orientation,” according to court documents.

The suit names the Brunswick School Department, town of Brunswick and Brunswick Junior High School Principal Walter Wallace as defendants.

Attorney David Webbert, who represents the student and his family, named in the suit as Jack Doe and Jane Doe, said Tuesday that settlement discussions that began in January with the school department were unsuccessful.

The school department’s leader continues to rebut the allegations.

Reading from a letter to be posted Wednesday on the school department’s website, Brunswick Superintendent of Schools Paul Perzanoski said Tuesday the suit “contains disturbing assertions about how a student was allegedly treated by students. [But] our thorough investigation has determined that most are false and that the school and Mr. Wallace handled [the situation] with skill and sensitivity and as required by law and our policies.”

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Portland, alleges the youth identified as Jack Doe was 11 years old “when the severe abuse of him at school began and his educational environment became hostile.”

According to the 30-page complaint, over a period of 2½ years “a group of sexually aggressive and violent male students” harassed the student, called him “gay,” subjected him to several “gay tests,” struck him with a lacrosse stick, stabbed him with a pencil and — on three separate occasions — sexually assaulted him, then threatened him and his family if he told anyone about the assaults.

The suit charges Wallace with failing to adequately respond to the student’s repeated complaints and charges that the principal acted “with actual malice and reckless indifference to the federally protected civil rights of Jane Doe and her child.”

The suit alleges that a child abuse evaluation by an independent agency concluded “there is strong evidence that [Jack Doe] has been sexually abused.”

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, Brunswick Police Cmdr. Mark Waltz said in June 2014.

Waltz said the Cumberland County District Attorney’s office declined to pursue charges and that he was prohibited by law from discussing why no charges were filed.

In June 2014, the Maine Human Rights Commission voted to uphold a report by its investigator, Victoria Ternig, that found reasonable grounds to determine the school department discriminated against the student who reported being harassed and bullied from August 2010, when he was in sixth grade, to October 2012.

In her report, Ternig wrote 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.”

In December, the Maine Human Rights Commission voted 3-1 to sue the school department for allegedly discriminating against the student who was bullied.

Amy Sneirson, executive director of the Maine Human Rights Commission, said previously she was not aware of any prior case in which the commission sued a school district because of bullying.

The suit seeks compensatory and punitive damages, as well as — among other new policies — increased training and monitoring policies and practices, a designated on-call counselor to assist victims of sexual harassment or violence during school hours and a review of Brunswick police records for the past five years for “any complaint of sexual assault that was treated as an exclusively criminal matter.”

On Tuesday afternoon, Perzanoski read, in part, from the letter to the Brunswick community, which he said would be distributed to media on Wednesday.

“There are events alleged in the complaint that simply did not happen and, most importantly, the allegations concerning Mr. Wallace are unfounded and untrue,” he read.

He spoke of national attention received by the junior high school in recent years for its work combatting bullying and harassment. Perzanoski said Wallace and the entire school department takes allegations of bullying and harassment very seriously and address them as they arrive.

“I want to assure you that your children are safe in our schools and that we remain available to work with you to address any remaining concerns you may have,” he said.

Perzanoski declined to answer specific questions, referring them to the school attorney.

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