The family of a Howard County student has filed a $10 million federal lawsuit against several officials in the school system, alleging that administrators failed to protect the student from bullying that led to his suffering from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore on Tuesday, alleges that in December 2007, officials at Patapsco Middle School in Ellicott City failed to protect the student's rights to due process and equal protection by not intervening in "serious episodes of student-on-student violence" by a group of five students.
The suit names as defendants all members of the Howard County Board of Education; Jennifer Peduzzi, who was principal at the time of the alleged attacks; the school's assistant principal, Nancy Eisenhuth; and a "John Doe" substitute teacher, who has not been named. The student's parents, Peter and Cindy Bulgarino, are listed as plaintiffs.
The Howard County school system declined to comment on the allegations because it had not received the lawsuit, said Patti Caplan, the school system's spokeswoman. Caplan said the school system received a "notice of claim" in anticipation of the lawsuit in June 2008, but as of Wednesday had not been served with an official suit.
Ellen Flynn Giles, chairwoman of the Howard County Board of Education, said the school board "takes student safety, especially bullying complaints, very seriously."
The federal lawsuit filed Tuesday by attorney Philip Sweitzer outlines how the student, who was in sixth grade at the school three years ago, was assaulted by "gangs of male, young adolescent peers" on school grounds. The lawsuit asserts that officials at Patapsco Middle engaged in a "willful neglect of the problem of bullying on the premises," violating his right to protection.
"I see [this case], fundamentally, as deprivation of constitutional rights," Sweitzer said Wednesday. "Just because he's a child doesn't mean he should be afraid to go to school."
The bullied student was subjected to "being stabbed and struck with pencils, being slammed into lockers, acts of imprisonment and restraint, attacks and assaults with instruments that became weapons at the hands of the individual perpetrators," the lawsuit says.
The suit says that five youths were involved in the attacks and that the assaults were documented in a police report and the bullied student's personal school record. A substitute teacher also witnessed one of the attacks, the lawsuit alleges.
As a result of the attacks, the student became "extremely afraid to attend school, became school-avoidant and began to suffer obvious psychological symptoms," according to the suit. The student was diagnosed with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in March 2008, Sweitzer said.
The lawsuit also alleges that in a meeting with school administrators in February 2008, Patapsco's principal acknowledged that she "dropped the ball" in addressing the situation properly and reprimanded another administrator for not giving the report of the harassment "sufficient gravity."
"My clients went to the school district thinking something would be done," Sweitzer said. "It was almost like the school district wanted to make it seem like it wasn't a problem."
Peduzzi, who is now a principal at the Cradlerock School in Howard County, declined to comment when contacted Wednesday.
Sweitzer said that the student transferred from Patapsco Middle to a private school in March 2008, where he is excelling. But he said that the student's family still deserves justice, having had to pay medical and educational expenses as a result of the school system's alleged negligence.
The family is suing for three counts of deprivation of constitutional rights and two counts of gross negligence on the part of administrators. The suit seeks $200,000 in damages for each count, against each of the nine defendants, and against the group of defendants jointly.
The family attempted to settle with the school system's insurance carrier, but the claim was denied in September 2009.
Sweitzer said that the Bulgarinos decided to seek the maximum amount allotted in federal court, hoping to pay back medical and education expenses and to keep their son in his private, Catholic school.
"But it's not about Catholic school or private school," Sweitzer said. "It's about being in a school where you're not attacked every day."