A principal named in a $1.3 million lawsuit alleging that the school system failed to protect two students against bullying took the stand Tuesday, saying that bullying "has become a buzz word" and acknowledging that two attacks on the students, including a special needs child, "may have been mentioned" to him by their parents.
Sidney Twiggs, principal at Hazelwood Elementary/Middle School, was the first witness called by school system lawyers to testify about events that Shawna and Edmund Sullivan allege occurred with their son and daughter, who attended the school in the 2008-2009 school year.
The parents are suing the system for several counts of gross negligence and violations of state law, saying their complaints about constant bullying to Twiggs and Charlotte Williams, the principal of Glenmount Elementary School, in the 2009-2010 school year were ignored. Williams is expected to testify Wednesday.
The Sullivans' special-needs son, now 10, attended first grade at Hazelwood and second grade at Glenmount. Their daughter, now 14, attended Hazelwood in fifth grade.
Twiggs outlined his primary responsibility as an "instructional leader" at the school and also to make sure that students are safe and secure.
Twiggs, a 43-year veteran of the school system, also described parents as his "secondary customers." "I talk to parents every morning, and there are concerns — negative and positive," he said. "And if it's a real concern I look into it. Well — I try to look into all concerns."
Twiggs' testimony did support others' who said the school had to call home several times because the boy was unmanageable.
However, Donna King, the lawyer for the family, suggested several inconsistencies in Twiggs' testimony compared to an earlier pretrial interview about concerns — which he repeatedly distinguished from complaints — expressed by the Sullivans.
Though Twiggs originally said that he had not communicated with the Sullivans about any incidents, he told jurors that Edmund Sullivan "mentioned some inappropriate language used toward his kids." Twiggs said he investigated by observing the students' classrooms and talking to teachers and found no evidence of the name-calling.
The lawsuit alleges that the students, who are white, were targeted for their race, and their father testified that they were called "cracker" and other derogatory names.
Twiggs also said the Sullivans made no complaints about an assault, though the lawsuit alleges their son was jumped, choked unconscious and had his lunch money taken by students.
But King read from an earlier interview with attorneys in which Twiggs said "a complaint that [the students] were jumped and robbed may have been mentioned." Twiggs confirmed Tuesday that "it may have been mentioned and that's about it."
Twiggs also said student-on-student injury and bullying are different.
"If a child injures another child, that's one direction — bullying is something different," he said. "The word bullying didn't come about until another child was killed in another municipality. This recently has become a buzz word. Before, when a child had a problem, it was called 'bothering' or 'picked on.'"
The principal also wasn't sure whether the Sullivans received the standard literature that schools are supposed to give to parents when they enroll their children — including the state-mandated "Bullying, Harassment and Intimidation" reporting form.
The family never submitted a bullying form, or any written complaints, to the school.
The 10-year-old special needs student, who now attends a public charter school, also took the stand Tuesday, telling jurors that he "asked to come" to court "to confirm that all the stuff my friends and family said is actually true."
After the bullying at Hazelwood, the boy was institutionalized for more than two weeks, during which time, he said, he lied and told counselors that his father abused him — a key point made by the school system's attorney to highlight the student's history of fabricating stories.
"I did [that] because I didn't want to go back home because I would go straight back to the school," he said.
The student, whom The Baltimore Sun is not identifying, has disabilities stemming from a brain injury he sustained at 13 weeks old.
He said of Hazelwood: "They really didn't care about the children that they had. And if something happened to me, they wouldn't do anything." He said Glenmount wasn't much better.
The boy's father, Edmund Sullivan, also took the stand. The school system's attorney, Quinton Herbert, highlighted inconsistencies in Sullivan's testimony and pretrial interviews.
For example, Herbert pointed out that Sullivan did not mention in his testimony Tuesday that he had said in an earlier interview the children were also called a derogatory term used for black people.
Sullivan acknowledged Tuesday that he also didn't make written complaints, take photos or keep records of his son's injuries, or keep track of which school staff he complained to.
Sullivan responded that if he knew the situation would be resolved in a courtroom, he would have.
The jury is expected to go into deliberations Wednesday.