Brunswick agrees to $125,000 payment to settle lawsuit by former student

Posted Nov. 10, 2016, at 4:19 p.m.
Last modified Nov. 10, 2016, at 5:09 p.m.

BRUNSWICK, Maine — A former Brunswick Junior High School student and his attorneys will receive $125,000 as part of an out-of-court settlement of a lawsuit filed after he was allegedly sexually assaulted in a bathroom at the school.

While no charges were ever filed, a Maine Human Rights Commission investigator determined that reasonable grounds exist to believe that the school’s staff did not respond appropriately to allegation of abusive behavior targeting the student.

The amount of the cash payment and a 14-point list of actions the school department must take to “protect students from unlawful bullying” in the school are outlined in a settlement agreement signed by the plaintiff’s mother, who is referred to in court records only as Jane Doe, and Brunswick Superintendent Paul Perzanoski.

According to the document, the plaintiffs will receive $50,000 and their attorneys, led by Augusta attorney David Webbert, will receive $75,000. Webbert and other attorneys have donated more than five times that amount to the case, the filing states.

The agreement resulted from an Aug. 18 judicial settlement conference before U.S. Magistrate Justice John C. Nivison and was submitted to the court Thursday for Nivison’s final approval.

In addition to the cash settlement, the agreement requires the school department to make a number of changes that Webbert, attorney for the student, and Maine Human Rights Commission Executive Director Amy Sneirson described earlier this month as significant.

Among those steps, the school department is required for this year and next to develop and maintain a computerized system to track all allegations of bullying, including any deemed “unsubstantiated. The system must be searchable by word, Sneirson said, “so that if a student alleges bullying by more than one student, it’s a way for someone to find out if one student is causing a problem in more than one place, or there’s more than one victim. It’s even possible they could figure out which things are happening in unmonitored spaces like bathrooms, stairwells or buses.”

The latter possibility is particularly relevant in the current lawsuit, in which the student alleged he had been sexually assaulted three times in junior high school bathrooms.

The school must create a gay-straight alliance, provide annual, in-person training of junior high school staff about bullying and sex stereotyping and conduct surveys of students and faculty of the school about bullying.

Attorneys for the school department will be required to send proof they are complying with the terms to attorneys for the plaintiff, and any dispute about the agreement will be reported directly to Nivison, whose decision will be final.

“That’s having a federal judge on standby,” Webbert said Thursday. “It’s a particularly strict enforcement provision.”

The agreement specifies that it does not constitute an admission by school officials of any violation of the Maine Human Rights Act.

The lawsuit alleged that while the boy was a student at the school from 2010 to 2012, he was bullied, physically assaulted and sexually assaulted several times. It also alleged that the administration failed to protect him — a claim a Maine Human Rights Commissioner investigator and an independent agency evaluator found strong evidence to support.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in July 2015, alleged “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, sexually assaulted him on three separate occasions, then threatened him and his family if he told anyone about the assaults.

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.

But a child abuse evaluation by an independent agency concluded “there is strong evidence that [Jack Doe] has been sexually abused,” the lawsuit contends.

The Brunswick School Board voted unanimously on Oct. 26 to “contribute up to $25,000 to the settlement amount,” but school officials declined to disclose the total settlement amount until a federal judge approved the agreement.

After approving the contribution, School Board Chairman Bill Thompson read a prepared statement about the agreement, noting that he does not believe “many” of the allegations against school officials.

“This is a difficult decision, and initially I did not support the idea of settling the case at all, let alone contributing funds to the settlement,” Thompson said following the vote. “I felt and still feel that we need to stand up for our employees because we know they did not do anything wrong. We know they are dedicated professionals who treat bullying seriously and that many of the things alleged against them are false.”

Sneirson subsequently described Thompson’s remarks as “disappointing.”

“Certainly, every school board member is allowed to have an opinion,” she said. “We thought everyone was in agreement that this was a good resolution of the case.”

She added that the Maine Human Rights Commission “will be keeping track just to make sure the things that are supposed to happen in terms of the public interest do happen.”

School Superintendent Paul Perzanoski on Thursday reiterated Thompson’s remarks that the administration felt junior high school principal Walter Wallace “had done nothing wrong,” and characterized the requirements in the lawsuit as voluntary.

Wallace was removed from the lawsuit without prejudice before the settlement agreement was approved.

“Although the School Board understood that as a practical matter it made sense to settle this case, it was absolutely clear that there would be no settlement of any amount on any terms while Walter Wallace was a defendant in the case because they firmly believed that he has done nothing wrong,” Perzanoski wrote in an email to the Bangor Daily News. “Therefore, it was not until he was dismissed that a settlement was reached.”

“Although much has been made by the plaintiffs about the non-monetary terms of the settlement, the majority of requests made of us were that we continue to do the things we have already been doing, like staff and student training and schoolwide surveys,” the superintendent continued. “This, I think, demonstrates a recognition on the part of the Maine Human Rights Commission that we are already doing things right. Digitizing our records is something that makes sense and something that we are glad to be doing and is not something that is being forced on us.”

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