By Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun
7:23 PM EST, December 21, 2011
Ruling that a $1.3 million lawsuit filed against the Baltimore school system was too broad, Circuit Judge W. Michael Pierson granted Wednesday the district's motion to throw out nine of the 13 counts, leaving a city jury to decide whether two principals were negligent in the alleged bullying of two students.
Jurors began deliberating late Wednesday evening, after attorneys for the alleged victims' families and the school system made closing arguments in the rare four-day trial that has pitted parents against principals and exposed the medical and behavioral histories of a 10-year-old special-needs child.
Edmund and Shawna Sullivan said that their son, who suffered a traumatic brain injury at the hands of an uncle when he was 13 weeks old, was bullied intensely and that officials ignored their complaints at Hazelwood and Glenmount elementary schools. The parents also alleged bullying of their now-14-year-old daughter at Hazelwood Elementary School.
Donna King, attorney for the Sullivans, concluded her case by telling jurors that though her clients never documented the alleged bullying with formal, written complaints or pictures of their children's alleged injuries, that doesn't mean that school officials weren't at fault.
The school system's attorney "doesn't say that these things never happened, he doesn't address the duties of [the principals]," King said. "He makes claims about what the Sullivans did and didn't do. … That they didn't do their own investigation. That's the schools' obligation."
Quinton Herbert, the district's attorney, asked the jury to "use your basic life experience and good old common sense" in deciding whether the principals had abandoned their duties and caused harm to the students. He told them to consider the inconsistencies of witness testimony and the credibility of witnesses.
Earlier Wednesday, Herbert won several motions to have the majority of the counts thrown out of the case. The counts dismissed included several that alleged the principals had intentionally and negligently misrepresented the incidents, and the school board had failed to maintain a safe educational environment and was negligent in its hiring and supervision.
He also asserted that the Sullivans did not meet the burden of proof that the principals' actions caused any harm to the boy. He said the alleged repercussions of the bullying already existed due to the child's traumatic brain injury. He pointed to the fact that all witnesses said the schools had called the parents several times, mostly to pick him up because of his behavior, contradicting the parents' claim that the schools did nothing.
"They are asking you to say that any principal should be liable if they do everything they're supposed to do and that parents don't think it's enough," Herbert said.
Despite a series of high-profile bullying incidents, it's the first time the city school system has ever gone to trial in a bullying case.
The civil trial began its fourth day on Wednesday with the testimony of Charlotte Williams, who was principal of Glenmount Elementary during the year the special-needs boy attended second grade there. Sidney Twiggs, principal of Hazelwood, took the stand on Tuesday.
In lengthy testimony, 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 — which were substantiated by teachers and the students allegedly involved — and that as part of her investigation, 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 in two separate incidents. She said she told the children that their behavior was not appropriate.
That was the extent of her disciplinary action, she said. She said there was also no evidence of injuries. "Our goal is to work with children in a positive manner — and what we try to do is not be punitive in all situations," she said.
Williams said the Sullivans never submitted a formal bullying, harassment and intimidation complaint form, but also acknowledged that she did not file one herself.
The jury will continue deliberations and a verdict is expected Thursday.
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