Bullying suit against city schools goes to trial

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A city jury heard opening statements Thursday in a $1.3 million lawsuit in which parents allege that the school system was grossly negligent and failed to prevent their two children, including a special-needs student, from being bullied.

School system officials said this trial will be the first in which a jury will decide if the district handled cases of bullying appropriately. The family of the alleged victims, city school administrators, and bullying and psychological experts are expected to testify over five days.

Parents Shawna and Edmund Sullivan allege that their special-needs son and his older sister were tormented at Hazelwood and Glenmount elementary schools over two years, during which their complaints fell on deaf ears.

The Sullivans are seeking damages from the system and the two schools' principals for the alleged bullying, said to have taken place during the 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 school years. The suit says that during that time, the family incurred expenses for hospitalizing their son for mental and physical abuse, home-schooling both children and sending one to private school.

The district and the principals are accused of negligence, failure to maintain a safe educational environment, and violation of Maryland's Declaration of Rights. Charlotte Williams, principal of Glenmount, and Sidney Twiggs, principal of Hazelwood, both appeared in court Thursday and will take the stand in the coming days.

This is one of a series of high-profile bullying incidents in city schools in the past year, since an April 2010 incident in which a third-grade student with cerebral palsy threatened to jump out of a window to escape her bullies. Since then, the city has experienced a 150 percent increase in the number of bullying complaints. Officials have attributed the increase to more awareness about reporting bullying.

City school officials said they have never defended a bullying case in court nor have they settled one outside of court.

The Sullivans' suit alleges that the principals were unresponsive to reports that the special-needs boy — who has disabilities spurred by a brain injury he suffered at 13 weeks old — was choked unconscious outside of Hazelwood as a first-grader and beaten by older classmates at Glenmount in the second grade.

The Sullivans' daughter, who attended fifth grade at Hazelwood, was subjected to verbal harassment, physical threats, battery, and theft and destruction of her property, according to the suit. In court Thursday, the family's lawyer said that a student had also urinated in the girl's locker. The family says she was subjected to bullying because she was defending her brother.

"All of these complaints went on deaf ears," the Sullivans' attorney, Donna King, told the jury Thursday.

The suit also alleges that some of the bullying against the students, who are white, was racially charged — which under the law and city schools policies requires reporting.

"The Sullivans were treated like they were annoying," she added. "Because no action was taken, the children suffered and were damaged. [The boy] was not a perfect child, but he's a brain-injured child, and he deserves an education like any other Baltimore City student."

The school system's attorney, Quinton Herbert, said that between them, Williams and Twiggs have more than 75 years' experience educating children, demonstrating their ability to provide a healthy and successful learning environment.

Herbert also targeted the credibility of the family, telling jurors that he would prove that the boy had a history of fabricating stories — including that his own father abused him — and a history of violence.

He asked the jury to question why the family could provide no witnesses to the most egregious of the alleged assaults — the urinating, beating and choking — which he told jurors was because the incidents never occurred.

He also pointed out that there were no written reports for the incidents.

Herbert asked the jury to pay attention "to what you don't hear as much as what you do hear."

The suit alleges that the principals failed to take any reports of the incidents and failed to discipline the bullies, perpetuating the problems.

The parents alleged that the principals never recorded the complaints because they did not want "to record that such actions occurred at [their] school, and suffer employment consequences," and there were "misrepresentations and falsified records relating to the bullying and battery incidents" at Glenmount, where the principal failed to involve school police.

The parents also alleged that staff made insufficient attempts to stop the bullying. In one of the instances at Glenmount, the suit says, staff suggested keeping the boy safe by putting a cardboard box around him.

Herbert said that Williams, Glenmount's principal, took all of the appropriate disciplinary measures against the alleged bullies, though she could not disclose them because of confidentiality laws. He also said that staff at Hazelwood tried to help the boy.

As a result of the abuse, the suit says, the boy feared attending school and had to be admitted to a psychiatric facility for 10 days, and suffers from nightmares, vomiting and other emotional disruptions.

The boy's mother, Shawna Sullivan, took the stand Thursday, calling her son "a normal 10-year-old" with challenges and quirks, who shuts down when frustrated. She said he is aware of his special needs but is intent on being like everybody else.

The family moved from Nevada, Sullivan said, to be near Johns Hopkins Hospital and Kennedy Krieger Institute in hopes of getting help for the boy, who now attends a public charter school in the city.

"I saw him go from a lot better to a lot worse," she said. "He told me he thought something was wrong with him because everybody hates him, and he told me he hated himself, because he couldn't figure out for the life of him why anybody would treat him that way."

Ellen Callegary, an attorney of more than 30 years who has represented families of special-needs children, said that jury trials in bullying cases are rare, but the complaints she heard from the Sullivan family in court Thursday were not.

But she said she doesn't anticipate that other parents would have the money to take their cases to trial, but that this case could spur more lawsuits.

"It's so excruciatingly painful for the families to go through this," she said. "But what we should hope is that this will lead to other protections for other children."