December 15, 2019
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Settlement hearing set for suit over alleged assaults in Brunswick school

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Brunswick Junior High School can be seen in Brunswick in this May 2015 file photo.

BRUNSWICK, Maine — The next phase of a lengthy legal dispute between the Brunswick school system and the family of a former student who allegedly was sexually and physically assaulted at Brunswick Junior High School will likely play out on Aug. 18 in federal court.

The family of the former student, identified as Jack Doe, and the Maine Human Rights Commission filed a lawsuit in federal court charging the town, school department and junior high principal with violating his civil rights. In addition to alleging that the former student was sexually and physically assaulted, the lawsuit claims he was discriminated against based on his gender and sexual orientation while attending the school from 2010 to 2012.

The suit, filed in July 2015, names the Brunswick School Department, town of Brunswick and Brunswick Junior High School Principal Walter Wallace as defendants. It charges that Wallace acted “with actual malice and reckless indifference to federally protected rights of Jane Doe and her child” and failed to adequately respond to the student’s repeated complaints and charges of assault, discrimination and bullying.

The suit alleges that 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.

An attorney representing the family said by phone this week that information collected since the suit was filed strengthens the case against the town and school department.

An attorney for the school department will, among other things, argue that the former student had already left school at the time the allegations were made, leaving administrators with no way to take corrective action.

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 its investigator’s report substantiating the complaints and subsequently 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.

Many case documents have been sealed after both parties in December 2015 signed a confidentiality agreement. Although the case was set for trial this month, in May, the defense notified the court it would file for summary judgment and ask the court to dismiss the case.

A pre-conference settlement memo filed on June 3 by Portland attorney Melissa Hewey outlines the defense case, and a June 16 response filed by attorney David Webbert on behalf of the plaintiffs details the plaintiffs’ side.

In his memo, Webbert wrote that Wallace allegedly told Jack Doe’s father when he was in seventh grade that junior high kids “are like a wolfpack and they tend to pick on the weak, and I think this is what’s going on with your kid, and maybe you should ask him to tone down his individuality a little bit.”

“That absolutely did not happen,” Hewey said of the alleged conversation. “It’s our position that there’s no evidence that anyone in this school treats boys or girls differently.”

Hewey wrote that facts show every school employee acted appropriately throughout the investigation, but Webbert wrote that Wallace’s “minimal and belated” responses “were clearly unreasonable in the face of numerous reports of longtime and escalating verbal harassment and physical abuse of Jack by multiple male students,” including being made fun of for being gay more than 30 different times, hit and stuck with a push pin.

Webbert said Wallace admitted in a deposition before the human rights commission that the school’s response to the push pin incident was “in violation of the procedure” for bullying incidents and said Superintendent Paul Perzanoski admitted at his deposition that a written report should have been created.

But Hewey said written notes were kept from the investigation, though no final report was issued.

To Hewey’s assertion that the plaintiffs didn’t report any of the three alleged sexual assaults until the boy’s eighth-grade years, when “he was no longer attending BJHS or had any intention of going back,” Webbert wrote, “Not true.”

Webbert said Jack Doe was still enrolled at the school and attending classes “sporadically” when he made the allegations in October 2012 and was subsequently tutored at home.

Hewey said Thursday that she will make “a legal argument” in her summary judgment memo that technically, since Jane and Jack Doe had allegedly testified he would never return to Brunswick Junior High School, “as a matter of law, there’s no remedial action we could have taken.”

“We think this case is so strong for us on certain issues, and it’s gotten stronger,” Webbert said.

“There are a lot of things he said in [the memo] that are not true and a number of other things he said that are way overstated,” Hewey said. “We really see the facts differently, which is why the summary judgment memo is important.”

A mediator will join Magistrate Judge John C. Nivison and attorneys for the two parties at the Aug. 18 conference, Webbert said.

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