Brunswick school bullying lawsuit on hold during settlement talks

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BRUNSWICK — A lawsuit threatened against the School Department for allegedly allowing a student to be bullied is being delayed to give the parties a chance to negotiate an out-of-court settlement.

On Jan. 12, attorneys representing the town, Maine Human Rights Commission and a former Brunswick Junior High School student and his mother signed an agreement that puts off deadlines for court filings in the case. 

The commission voted in December to sue the school district in the case of the boy, who claims teachers and administrators failed to protect him from physical and emotional abuse by other students when he attended BJHS from 2010 to 2012. 

Under terms of the so-called tolling agreement, the School Department has agreed not to raise a legal defense based on any filing deadlines that lapse while the parties negotiate.

Filing deadlines vary depending on the type of litigation, but lawsuits filed under the Maine Human  Rights Act have fairly tight time frames, according to David Webbert, the Augusta-based attorney who is representing the student and his mother.

At this point, it is preferable to try to settle instead of bringing a lawsuit against the town, Webbert said. 

“It’s almost always better to try to work out something that accomplishes your goals without litigation,” he said. 

Settlement negotiations are expected to involve all three parties, Webbert, who specializes in civil rights and employment discrimination, said.

“I think this case is very important,” he added. “This type of case is why I went to law school. Education is the foundation of a free country, and having safe schools is an essential part of that.”

When asked if he is optimistic an agreement can be reached, Webbert said “I always try my hardest. I think it is certainly possible.”

MHRC counsel Barbara Archer Hirsch reported on Jan. 12 that the commission had not filed a suit in the case and had reached the tolling agreement with the school. She also provided a copy of the agreement.

Reached by phone Tuesday, Brunswick Superintendent of Schools Paul Perzanoski declined to discuss the agreement.

The student’s mother filed a complaint against the school with the MHRC in 2012, after her son left BJHS.

In a report released in June 2014, MHRC investigator Victoria Ternig found that school administrators recognized the student was being bullied, but only responded on a case-by-case basis, instead of seeing a wider pattern of abuse. 

As a result, the school allowed a “hostile educational environment” to persist during the time the student attended BJHS, Ternig reported. 

The School Department has denied it discriminated against the student and maintains that it investigated and addressed every episode of bullying he reported. 

It also cited its anti-bullying “rubric,” which has been held up as a model by the Maine Department of Education. 

Webbert said he hopes a settlement in the case can be used to make sure that school policies are used effectively, not just in Brunswick, but in schools across the state. 

“I think there could well be a benefit for some model of ways to go forward to make sure policies are being monitored and implemented in practice,” he said. “Policies are great, but unless they are being monitored and implemented, then they are not doing what they say.”

Peter L. McGuire can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or pmcguire@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter @PeteL_McGuire.

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