BRUNSWICK, Maine — The Brunswick School Department must revamp its approach to bullying significantly as part of an out-of-court settlement with the family of a former student who alleges he was sexually assaulted at Brunswick Junior High School.
The school system also will make a cash payment to the former student’s family as part of an agreement to settle the federal lawsuit filed by the Maine Human Rights Commission and the family of the former student that accused the town, the school district and the junior high principal of violating the student’s civil rights when he was student there.
The suit 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 the MHRC investigator and an independent agency evaluator found strong evidence to support.
On Oct. 26, the Brunswick School Board voted unanimously to “contribute up to $25,000 to the settlement amount,” but attorneys for the MHRC, the boy’s family, attorneys and school officials have all declined to disclose the total settlement amount until a federal judge approves the agreement.
On Monday, however, Augusta attorney David Webbert, who represents the former student’s family identified in court documents only as Jack Doe, and Amy Sneirson, executive director of the Maine Human Rights Commission, both said that the steps the school system must take to address bullying far outweigh the cash value of the settlement.
Among those steps, the school department is required for this year and next to develop and maintain a computerized system to track allegations of bullying. 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.
Sneirson said attorneys for the school department will be required to send proof they are complying with the terms to attorneys for the plaintiff.
The school must also create a gay-straight alliance and provide annual, in-person training of junior high school staff about bullying and sex stereotyping.
Sneirson said she is not aware of any other schools with similar databases, nor is she aware of any other court case regarding bullying based on a protected class status that the MHRC has been a party to.
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 suit specifically alleged that Brunswick Junior High School Principal Walter Wallace, who in 2015 named Principal of the Year by the Maine Principals’ Association, failed to respond adequately to the student’s repeated complaints and acted “with actual malice and reckless indifference to the federally protected civil rights of Jane Doe and her child.”
According to court documents, the case against Wallace was dismissed Oct. 21 with prejudice following a joint stipulation by both parties, meaning charges cannot be reinstated.
Brunswick Superintendent of Schools Paul Perzanoski declined to comment on the settlement after the school board vote. He said in July 2015 that 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 Maine Human Rights Commission disagreed and sought 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.”
“We really thought hard about what will help in a school that has seemingly very good policies in place, which Brunswick did,” Snierson said. “[We thought], ‘How can we foster more hands-on practical improvements of tracking bullying issues.’”
Following the school board vote to approve the settlement, chairman Bill Thompson said in a prepared statement that his decision to do so was difficult because 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. But seeing the amount of time this is taking and the amount of time it will take away from teaching and learning if the case goes to trial, I am convinced that it is in the best interest of the school, our students and the entire school department that we move to resolve the case and move on.”
Sneirson 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.”
“The settlement is a good thing — a good thing not just for Brunswick but for the whole state,” Webbert said. “It was a learning process for how to do things better for the kids. Really the agenda here should be protecting our students and helping them reach their full potential, and bullying certainly gets in the way of that.”