The nightmare for Bridget Banks began five years ago, on the day before Thanksgiving.
The voice mail at her office that Wednesday afternoon said her daughter, then 12 years old and diagnosed with mild mental retardation, was being suspended from Baltimore's Southeast Middle School for fighting.
When the mother arrived home, she said, she found her daughter unable to speak, her shirt ripped and her hair a mess. She shook her until she got her to talk. Banks was so mortified by what she heard that she made the girl repeat her story three times. Then she called the Baltimore police.
Five years later, Banks and her daughter have won a $100,000 judgment - the maximum permitted by law - against the city school system. Their lawsuit, currently on appeal, charges that seven boys attacked and sexually assaulted the girl in a math class while the teacher in the room did nothing to help her. The school system has alleged in court that the girl provoked the attack, which did not involve rape.
The case is an extreme example of the classroom management problems that many schools face, particularly with situations involving special-education students, and of how quickly horseplay can spiral out of control.
Banks' daughter is now 17. According to her mother, she has been hospitalized in psychiatric facilities 21 times, including four stays of at least several months. She is now living in a residential facility for vulnerable adolescents. Until this year, the school system covered the cost of all the long-term placements.
The Sun is not identifying the girl because she is a minor and an alleged victim of sexual assault. School system officials declined to comment on her case, and the teacher who was in the room at the time of the incident has since died.
A single mother with no other children, Banks noticed her daughter's developmental delays early, and the girl was getting help before she turned 2. In addition to mild mental retardation, she was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. But until that November day, when she was 12, she never had significant behavior problems, her mother said. The only time she was suspended was in kindergarten, when a boy hit her and she hit back.
In seventh grade at Southeast, she was the only girl in a special-education class with about nine boys, some of whom were diagnosed as "emotionally disturbed," her mother said. She would sit in the back of the class to stay away from them.
According to the lawsuit, a boy went to the back of the room during a math class on Nov. 27, 2002, and began fondling the girl's breasts. The girl called out to the teacher, the suit says, but the teacher continued with her lesson. More boys became involved, and they threw the girl to the ground. Eventually, the lawsuit alleges, seven boys - all those who were present that day except one - were on top of her. They pinned her arms and legs to the ground as they continued to fondle her and tried to pull off her pants. .
"When she yelled for help, no one did anything," said Banks, who is 35 and a secretary in the engineering department at Morgan State University.
The girl eventually kicked and screamed enough to get the boys off her, at which point she threw chairs and desks to get them away, her mother said. Another teacher came in and broke up an ensuing fight. The girl was escorted to the assistant principal's office with four of the boys, who contradicted her story of what happened and said "that she asked for it, that she wanted it," according to Banks. She was written up for suspension. No one from the school contacted police, the suit says, which is required when there's an allegation of sexual assault.
With the school closed for the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, Banks wasn't able to meet with school officials until the following Monday. By that time, the police had contacted the principal, and the principal had lifted the suspension against Banks' daughter.
When Banks met with the assistant principal and the school counselor, she said, "All they kept saying was, 'We're sorry.'" She said she was not permitted to speak with the math teacher, who had told administrators that one of the boys committed a "disgusting sexual act."
At home, meanwhile, Banks said her daughter was having violent nightmares and was fighting and screaming in her sleep.
Mother and daughter stayed home together for five weeks, at which point Banks enrolled the girl in another city middle school. But being in a classroom would bring back memories, and she would break down crying. According to the mother and the lawsuit, teachers said she would lie on the floor, curled up in a ball and rocking back and forth.
As the weeks wore on, the girl was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and she became suicidal, her mother said. In 2003, she was hospitalized seven times in five months, her mother said. When Banks walked in on her daughter as she tried to slash her wrists, the girl attempted to turn the knife on her mother.
Eventually, the state assumed custody of the girl, but Banks still must sign off on where she is living. "I couldn't even provide a safe home environment," the mother said. "I was so scared that I was gonna come home and find her dead." At the same time, she said, "I didn't want to give her up."
In 2005, Banks hired a lawyer and sued the school system for negligence. The case went to trial this summer in Baltimore Circuit Court. The school system argued that the girl was misbehaving just as much as the boys.
"I think the school tried to portray the defense as, 'She got what she deserved,'" said H. Richard Duden, the lawyer representing the family. "The jury was not receptive."
The jury awarded Banks and her daughter $135,000 for medical expenses and pain and suffering. Judge Alfred Nance reduced the award to $100,000, the maximum allowed against the school board over a single incident.
Nance would not allow the jury to consider the system's claim of "contributory negligence," its contention that the girl's conduct was a factor in what happened. Now the school system is appealing the case to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals on the grounds that contributory negligence should be considered.
Banks, who has been sick in the past year with diabetes, lives in Edmondson Village with her mother and sister. Her daughter lives in a residential facility in Montgomery County, where she is trying to earn the credits she needs to graduate from high school. She is permitted an overnight visit with her family every other week. She's home for the Thanksgiving weekend.