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Jury finds in favor of principals, school system in bullying lawsuit

BullyingJustice SystemLaws and Legislation

A lack of evidence led a Baltimore jury to rule that two principals were not negligent in a $1.3 million bullying lawsuit against the city school system, but jurors said they were also conscious of a snowball effect that could subject systems around the country to a barrage of lawsuits.

"This weighed heavy on us because we realized what we did would affect systems nationwide," said Carl Armstrong, who served as Juror No. 6 in the four-day trial.

"We took that heavily into consideration, because we knew we could open the possibility of lawsuits — from past, present and future parents of students — against schools across the country, and Baltimore City would have been at the forefront."

The jury returned their decision Thursday morning in the lawsuit brought by parents Edmund and Shawna Sullivan, who alleged that their special-needs son and their older daughter were bullied while attending Hazelwood and Glenmount elementary schools and that their complaints were ignored by the principals.

According to Jimmy Gittings, president of the city's principals union, the Baltimore school system is already feeling the effects of the lawsuit.

"It has been open season ever since this case became public," said Gittings, who said that he "believed in his heart" that both principals would win on all counts.

"You wouldn't believe the number of phone calls that I have been receiving from principals who have been literally harassed and threatened by parents telling them that they would take them to court over things that are very trivial."

Gittings said he was pleased with the verdict, and that the blame for bullies should be placed on the parents who raise them.

The jury said that a lack of documentation, witnesses and testimony was the primary reason the Sullivans lost the case.

The parents said that several violent incidents against their children went ignored by the schools' leaders and that their special-needs son, who is now 10, suffered physical and emotional damage as a result. The parents also alleged bullying of their now-14-year-old daughter at Hazelwood.

Armstrong said that jurors believed the boy was bullied at Hazelwood and carried the baggage to Glenmount. But the parents' lack of witnesses to the incidents, and the fact that they couldn't consistently recount names, dates, times and other details were damaging to their case, he said.

On Wednesday, Circuit Judge W. Michael Pierson granted the district's motion to throw out nine of the 13 counts, leaving the principals to each face a negligence and gross negligence count.

Charlotte Williams, who was principal of Glenmount during the year the special-needs boy attended second grade, and Sidney Twiggs, principal of Hazelwood, both testified that they addressed any incidents brought to their attention.

In the end, jurors were not convinced that the repercussions — the boy had to be institutionalized for more than two weeks after the alleged bullying — were spurred by inaction of the school leaders.

"Evidence was lacking, and there were way too many holes," Armstrong said. "Emotional-wise, they had us. But evidence-wise, they just didn't have it."

Other jurors said they were also thinking about how the lawsuit would affect the school system's ability to educate and protect other students.

"We don't need a blow to the system," said Major Wilkes, Juror No. 3. "They would have had to pay a lot of money that would take away from other kids. Instead of taking from them, we need to build the schools up with that money."

The Sullivans said it was never about money, but taking on a system they believed failed their children.

"This is the system telling us: We're not responsible for your children," Edmund Sullivan said of the verdict. "We're not the only people who have gone through this. It really puts us all on notice. I feel betrayed that the school system can do this and get away with it."

Donna King, attorney for the Sullivans, said that in the end it was important to share the Sullivans' story, even though jurors said they didn't have enough evidence to believe all of it.

"This is a message to all parents to put everything in writing, take pictures, and not rely on the school system to do the right thing," King said.

In a statement, the school system said, "Today's verdict shows the jury's careful consideration and recognition of how complex the interactions between students can be, and how seriously our school leaders and teachers take their responsibilities to our children."

It was Williams' testimony that the jury found the most credible and consistent, Armstrong said, adding that she had a "huge role" in the jury's decision.

"If it weren't for Ms. Williams, it may have been different," Armstrong said. "We thought Mr. Twiggs could have done more."

Williams declined to comment Thursday.

Williams, who served 34 years in the city school system before retiring, described to jurors how her school, staff and parents were inundated with information about bullying, including the state-mandated reporting forms, and that she had done extensive training and independent research on the subject.

She also said that she was made aware of two incidents involving the special-needs student and that she consulted with teachers and parents, as well as met with the roughly 10 students alleged to have been involved in either tripping, hitting or jumping the boy, to inform them that the children's behavior was not appropriate.

After the verdict was read, Twiggs broke down in tears.

"It's all God," Twiggs said through sobs. "God knew I was doing the right thing."

Twiggs added that although the jury decided in favor of the system, he still has to answer to his school community. "It's not over," he said.

erica.green@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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