A federal lawsuit has been filed against the Harford County Public Schools and two school officials on behalf of a disabled student, who the suit claims was subjected to years of continuous bullying and threats from other students beginning when he was a student at Church Creek Elementary School and continuing when he was a student at Aberdeen Middle and High schools.
The suit contends the school system not only failed to address the problem, but also failed to protect the student from the abuse.
The suit was filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore on behalf of the student, who is identified in a redacted version as SB, a minor, and his guardians, identified as AL, the student's mother, and TL, his stepfather. Though none of the three is identified by name, the suit also identifies TL as the athletic director at Aberdeen High School. Tim Lindecamp is the AHS athletic director.
According to the suit, SB, the student, is an 11th grade student at Aberdeen High School.
The suit alleges intentional discrimination, deliberate indifference, intentional infliction of emotional distress and retaliation against SB's parents by school officials and the school system, as well as violations of constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and equal protection, while also charging the school system with conspiracy, unconstitutional policies and procedures and a violation of the Harford County Code prohibiting discriminatory practices.
"The school system has to do things to ensure bullying is not problematic for my client or problematic for all students," Wayne D. Steedman, the plaintiffs' lawyer, said in a phone interview Thursday. "We need to send a message that this kind of conduct will not be tolerated and they need to stop it."
The suit seeks $1.2 million in damages from the school system and $300,000 each from Michael O'Brien, the Aberdeen High principal, and from William Lawrence, the associate superintendent – the school system's number two post – who announced in February that he is retiring effective July 1. O'Brien and Lawrence have been sued in their official capacities and as individuals, the suit noting that in his position, Lawrence was "responsible for ensuring that the local educational agency acts in accordance with the law in the delivery of education services to disabled students ... and that students with disabilities attending [Harford] schools are not subjected to disability-based discrimination."
Steedman, who said his main area of practice is working with children with disabilities, said SB "has been suffering for quite a number of years now; that's the reason for the financial demand."
A spokesperson for Harford County Public Schools declined to discuss the litigation.
"I can confirm that yesterday, Wednesday, April 10, we were informed of the lawsuit that you referenced, the details of which are currently being reviewed," Teri Kranefeld, HCPS director of communications, said via e-mail Thursday afternoon. "As this is current pending litigation, I cannot discuss the details of the case."
Among the allegations contained in the suit are the citing of several incidents where school officials did not fill out bullying/harassment incident reports required by Maryland state law and also allegedly failed to inform SB's parents about the incidents or to provide them with information when requested. When SB's mother tried to find out more information about specific incidents and action taken, the suit claims, O'Brien barred her from visiting the school for that purpose and later allegedly retaliated against her husband by canceling his graduate school practicum.
The suit also alleges that school personnel failed to stop bullying of SB when they observed it, as well as bullying of other disabled students, and also failed to take into account SB's individualized education plan, or IEP, which notes that SB has "a specific learning disability in the areas of writing and math."
Steedman said efforts to work out an accommodation with school officials earlier this year and to avoid litigation went nowhere and he particularly blamed Lawrence, saying: "He rejected every remedial measure we suggested and basically dared my clients to sue the school system. He made it abundantly clear there wouldn't be reason to meet with them again because they were not going to budge on anything."
Steedman also said the alleged retaliation against the stepfather was initiated by Lawrence, who said he could take such action at his discretion.
"That's pretty amazing," Steedman said.
History of bullying
According to the suit, SB was first identified as a student with a disability in the spring of 2005 when he was a student at Church Creek Elementary School in Belcamp, where from third to fifth grades, "SB was frequently teased and bullied because of behaviors and mannerisms that were related to his disabilities. During this period, the suit says, SB was subjected to name calling and "was ostracized and friendless through that time."
In sixth grade, the 2007-08 school year, SB attended Aberdeen Middle School, where the suit claims, "The teasing and bullying escalated." In addition to name-calling, the suit continues, other students "would knock his books out of his hands, throw things at him, threaten him and steal his belongings." The suit says SB reported the incidents to school personnel, who the suit says would speak to the offending students, "but the bullying and intimidation persisted." The suit also claims, "School personnel were aware that their actions were ineffective but did nothing more to curb the harassment."
"Additionally," the suit continues, school personnel "did not offer SB or AL the form to report such abuse, nor did the school complete and submit the report to the Maryland Department of Education as required by law." The suit says SB resisted attending school and difficulty focusing on his work.
"The bullying and teasing worsened in the seventh grade and escalated throughout the school year," according to the suit, which at several points gives examples of the names SB was called. The suit also notes that "physical aggression escalated" against SB at this time, and there were incidents of students "following SB home making threats and trying to engage in fights." In addition, the suit says, students allegedly called SB's home and left messages for his parents calling him a slur for homosexual, "because he had a friend at school who was openly gay."
"AL reported the harassing telephone calls to the police who directed her to the school's resource officer," the suit continues. "The resource officer conducted an investigation and concluded the bullying and harassment was SB's fault. Again, no report was submitted to [the state education department] and plaintiffs were not informed of the required form."
SB began seeing a psychotherapist in April 2009, according to the suit who, in consultation with AL, endorsed a break from school for nine days. Once SB returned to school, however, the bullying and harassment continued to the point where SB once again had difficulty concentrating in class and tried to avoid attending school. Late in the school year, the suit says, SB's mother conducted an in-school observation and "witnessed students openly bullying and harassing each other with school personnel doing nothing to intervene.
The suit also claims AL concluded from those observations "that the students who were the victims of these assaults were also students with disabilities and the school was indifferent to the harassment of them." AL told school officials what she had seen, the suit continues, and then removed her son from Aberdeen Middle for the final six days of the school.
The suit says SB next received an administrative transfer to attend Havre de Grace Middle School, where the suit says there was some bullying and teasing; however, "the school personnel effectively intervened and the problems did not persist."
"He [SB] had a much more successful year there" at Havre de Grace Middle, Steedman said Thursday.
But when SB entered the ninth grade at Aberdeen High in the summer of 2010, the suit says, the bullying began once again. "In addition to the unremitting name-calling, the physical aggression escalated further," the suit states, citing specific incidents over the two years, including one in 10th grade where a group of boys followed SB home and threw rocks at him, one of whom SB recognized.
The incident was reported to Aberdeen High School officials, the suit continues, but the next day the boy allegedly followed SB in class and threatened him. Another complaint was filed, the suit says, and, after an assistant principal observed the harassment on a school security video, the boy in question was placed under a behavior contract and told to have no contact with SB. The suit says, however, that the contract was "ineffective" and the boy eventually spoke to SB who told the boy to leave him alone and was again allegedly threatened. SB reacted loudly, attracting attention from school personnel, according to the suit, but while the other boy ran away, SB was given a one-day in-school suspension, with no consequences for the other boy. Once again, the suit claims, no bullying or harassment form was completed and the parents were not informed.
More bullying and name-calling incidents are detailed throughout the suit, some in which SB was the victim and others where other students were allegedly harassed and threatened, including one in May of 2012 in which SB came to the aid of a female disabled student, who was being harassed by another female student in a gym class. When, the suit says, a friend of the student doing the harassing called him names and threatened him, SB called the student a racial slur, which the suit says escalated the name-calling and threats.
SB was escorted to the school office, the suit says, where an assistant principal gave SB "a paper titled 'incident report,' placed him in a room alone and told him to write a statement of what had happened," without providing a scribe or computer in accordance with information contained in SB's individualized education plan.
'Grade him out'
Finding out about the incident from her husband, SB's mother came to school to pick him up early and learned of the statement, she had her son dictate one to her which she scribed, the suit continues. The assistant principal refused to accept it, however, and instead suggested SB not return to school for the rest of the year and they would "grade him out," giving him the grades he had earned at the time, the suit alleges.
Instead, the suit alleges that SB returned to school on May 17, 2012, at which point the same assistant principal, identified in the suit as Sherry Bosley, allegedly became upset and suspended him for 10 days with a referral for additional days submitted to the superintendent, according to the suit.
At that point, the suit says, SB's mother met with O'Brien, the principal, who refused to consider the mother's statement about the incident and allegedly told the mother that "the students who had threatened to assault SB were justified because of SB's racial epithet." According to the suit, O'Brien allegedly also told the mother he intended to do nothing about the bullying situation, telling her that "statistically bullying drops off in the 11th and 12th grades." At no time, the suit alleges, did the principal inform the mother of the bullying/harassment form.
The suit says SB and his parents next met with a designee of Superintendent Robert Tomback, identified in the suit as Buzz Williams, who the suit says used the original report filled out by SB to add eight days of in-school suspension to the 10 days of out-of-school suspension previously imposed by the school. An appeal to the Harford County Board of Education ensued. Following several postponements at the board's request, the suit continues, a hearing was held on Nov. 13, 2012, at which the board upheld the suspension, noting that there was no record of the bullying complained about by SB and his mother.
SB continued at Aberdeen High during the current school year. When threatened by another boy in and out of school in October, the suit says, AL reported the threats to school officials and the offending student was disciplined. When AL began making inquiries about the proper forms being filled out, the suit alleges, she was barred by O'Brien from having communication with any school staff member "regarding school policies and procedures, academics (non IEP) and discipline."
Retaliation against stepfather alleged
When more exchanges continued between AL and O'Brien, the suit alleges, O'Brien informed her husband he would not be able to complete his graduate practicum in supervision and administration at AHS because his wife had posted an e-mail exchange between her and O'Brien on her Facebook page. It was also around this time, according to the suit, following the bullying of another student that SB had reported, that Lawrence became personally involved in the case, informing AL, according to the suit, "that staff had been directed not to respond to her e-mails and to forward them to him."
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In January 2013, according to the suit, O'Brien assigned an adult to accompany SB throughout his school day, which the suit says caused SB to become "humiliated, upset and embarrassed." The parents asked O'Brien to end the shadowing, which they were not told about beforehand, and he refused, according to the suit.
At the request of SB's parents and their lawyer, Steedman, a meeting was held on Jan. 15, 2013, with several high ranking school officials, including Lawrence and school legal counsel Patrick Spicer "in an effort to resolve the issues and avoid litigation," according to the suit. Specifically, they requested that school officials provide training to school personnel in bullying intervention, end the alleged retaliation against AL and allow her to visit the school, end the alleged retaliation against TL, expunge the previous year's suspension from SB's record, end the adult shadow and apologize "for the [school system's] violations of his rights."
According to the suit, Lawrence responded for the school system and "denied all claims raised by the plaintiffs and rejected all of the plaintiffs' requests, except that he agreed to provide copies to AL and TL of the bullying reports." The suit also alleges Lawrence "endorsed" O'Brien's actions and "dared the plaintiffs to sue." The bullying reports, the suit adds, "have never been provided."
Steedman said Thursday that SB's parents do not want to take him out of Aberdeen High, despite the repeated bullying and harassment.
"He has some friends there...other kids who are similar in terms of having some disabilities," the lawyer said. "When he's tried to help them or stand up for them, he's gotten in trouble. By that I mean if he stands up for students with intellectual limitations, he will be bullied and harassed and when he reacts to it, he's the one who gets punished."
Steedman also said bullying, especially of children with disabilities, is a problem not just in Maryland, but nationwide.
"Children with disabilities are victimized much more frequently and quickly than their counterparts just because they are different," he said. "School is tough to begin with, especially middle school, and let's face it, kids can be cruel to each other."