Brunswick School Board votes to settle longtime lawsuit

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BRUNSWICK — Following an executive session Wednesday evening, the School Board unanimously authorized the superintendent to contribute up to $25,000 towards the settlement of an ongoing civil rights lawsuit against the School Department.

In July 2015, the Maine Human Rights Commission and the mother of a former Brunswick junior high school student sued the department for failing to protect the boy from continued bullying, sexual harassment, and three claims of sexual assault between 2010 and 2012.

After the vote, Chairman Billy Thompson said the decision to settle was difficult, and a position he initially opposed.

“I felt and still feel that we need to stand up for our employees because we know they did not do anything wrong,” he said. “We know they are dedicated professionals who treat bullying seriously and that many of the things alleged against them are false.”

Superintendent Paul Perzanoski has also denied all allegations. But on Friday, he echoed a point that Thompson made Wednesday, which was that the case has dragged on for four years, and the department wanted to resolve the issue and prevent any further taxation the case has caused for staff.

The $25,000 contribution still awaits review from a federal judge and further negotiation by the counsel of both parties; until then, Perzanoski said he could provide no further comment on whether the contribution of $25,000 would be the final settlement figure.

On Oct. 21, a court document shows that a charge against Junior High School Principal Walter Wallace had been dismissed, but Perzanoski said he could not comment as to whether the dismissal was a stipulation of settlement negotiations until the judge had finalized the settlement.

The 2015 lawsuit followed six months of out-of-court talks that failed to reach a settlement. Based on findings by MHRC investigator Victoria Ternig, the MHRC joined the boy’s mother in litigation in December 2014.

In an Aug. 15 motion for summary judgment, the school’s lawyer’s argued that the case should be thrown out.

“Now that this case is at the summary judgment stage, the Plaintiffs can no longer rely on rhetoric to keep their claims alive,” Melissa Hewey, the department’s attorney, wrote in court documents filed in August.

“At best, this is a case where the Plaintiffs disagree with the School Department about how to address unkind behavior between students in middle school …,” Hewey said.

Settlement talks began in mid-August.

There is no scheduled date yet for the judge’s review of the settlement. Perzanoski said the review could take a few weeks.

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

Edited 10/31 to clarify in the first paragraph that the vote to contribute settlement funds were made toward a lawsuit against the department, not Walter Wallace.

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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.