Brunswick agrees to pay $125K to settle school bullying lawsuit

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BRUNSWICK — The town will pay $125,000 to settle a federal lawsuit that accused the School Department of failing to adequately protect a student from persistent bullying and discrimination, including sexual assault.

As part of the agreement filed Nov. 10 in U.S. District Court, the School Department will immediately expand and reinforce its bullying policies and procedures, which Superintendent Paul Perzanoski said mostly requires the school to “continue to do the things we have already been doing.”

Following months of unsuccessful out-of-court talks, the Maine Human Rights Commission sued Brunswick and junior high school Principal Walter Wallace in July 2015, after an 11-year-old student said he was repeatedly bullied between 2010 and 2012.

Judge John C. Nivision oversaw settlement talks, which began in mid-August.

A investigation by Victoria Ternig of the MHRC catalogued at least 20 incidents of bullying and harassment over 2 1/2  years, which ultimately led to the boy’s departure from the school in October 2012 due to “a heightened level of anxiety.”

The incidents of bullying range from homophobic name calling to three counts of sexual assault that were later investigated by police, according to the report.

Unlike other kinds of harassment, which the boy reported as they happened, the student did not report the assaults until almost a year after they’d occurred.

Perzanoski has consistently denied all allegations made against the school, claiming that faculty and staff responded in accord with proper procedure and are dedicated to the fight against bullying.

The MHRC report enumerated the school’s formal responses to specific incidents – such as the principal’s outreach to the parents of both the student and the bully – and includes information regarding its state-recognized bullying prevention programs.

The settlement agreement does not constitute an admission that the school violated the Maine Human Rights Act.

Perzanoski also confirmed that the school would not settle the case until charges were dropped against Wallace, “because (the School Board) firmly believed that he has done nothing wrong.”

The agreement stipulates that $50,000 of the settlement will go toward the now- 17-year-old student’s secondary education; the remaining $75,000 will cover lawyers’ fees.

Going forward, the School Department will update the MHRC annually to demonstrate educators are complying with the agreement to expand programming to reduce bullying – especially against LGBTQ students – and strengthen reporting protocols.

Compliance will include new policies, like the development of a word-searchable, “centralized digital system for keeping records of all allegations of bullying,” and the formation of a faculty-supported gay-straight alliance at the junior high school.

MHRC Executive Director Amy Sneirson said the new digital system is intended to help faculty better identify patterns of bullying in the schools, and will be searchable by names, locations and dates.

Gay-straight alliances have been shown to reduce  reports of bullying, she said, citing a report by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network.

“That’s something we think will help a lot of LGBT students,” Sneirson said in a phone interview last week.

The agreement also mandates the schools continue many of existing procedures, including staff training and student assemblies designed to stop bullying, and collection of surveys of reported bullying.

In an email sent Nov. 3, prior to the settlement being made public, Perzanoski said “the majority of requests made of us were that we continue to do the things we have already been doing, like student and staff training and school-wide surveys. This, I think, demonstrates a recognition on the part of the Maine Human Rights Commission that we are already doing things right.”

As such, he said the department is happy to digitize records, and pushed back on the presumption that the policies represented a wholly new policy direction.

“Any suggestion by the executive director of the Maine Human Rights Commission that this is something that was forced upon us or that it is some sort of victory for the commission is simply not accurate,” he said.

Perzanoski said the decision to settle the case at all was “a practical matter” meant to keep the lawsuit from dragging on and further taxing faculty and staff.

After the School Board unanimously voted Oct. 26 to contribute $25,000 toward the settlement, School Board Chairman Billy Thompson said, “If this case goes to court, we know that some of our students will have to testify. I do not believe that court is a place for students, and I think that we owe it to them to do whatever is necessary to make sure that they do not have to do that.”

Callie Ferguson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or cferguson@theforecaster.net. Follow Callie on Twitter: @calliecferguson.

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Reporter on the Brunswick/Harpswell beat. Proud Bowdoin grad that you can find reporting on municipal, school, and community news, or inside the many coffee and sandwich shops around the Midcoast. Callie can be reached at 207-781-3661 ext. 100.