Brunswick School Department, principal deny violating bullied student’s civil rights

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BRUNSWICK — The School Department and Brunswick Junior High School Principal Walter Wallace on Aug. 7 denied allegations of unlawful discrimination against a child who was pervasively bullied in school between 2010 and 2012.

The complaint against the department and Wallace was filed in U.S. District Court in Portland on July 7 by the mother of the former student and the Maine Human Rights Commission.

It claims the child, whose identity is protected by a pseudonym, was “subjected to chronic, severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive verbal and physical harassment and abuse,” which resulted in him dropping out of school.

The alleged abuse ranged from other students stabbing the child with a pushpin to see if he would “deflate,” to three sexual assaults.

The plaintiffs argue that Wallace was “deliberately indifferent to the harassment,” repeatedly telling the mother “boys will be boys.” They argue the School Department and Wallace violated the child’s federal civil rights.

According to MHRC Executive Director Amy Sneirson, this is the first time the commission has sued a School Department over a case of bullying.

Wallace and the School Department denied nearly all the allegations in a 12-page answer to the complaint filed last week.

They also claim that a fact-finding report by MHRC investigator Victoria Ternig was not “thorough or careful.”

Their response echoes a public letter written by Superintendent Paul Perzanoski the day after the plaintiffs’ complaint was filed.

“There are events alleged in the complaint that simply did not happen,” Perzanoski wrote.

In their filing, the defendants admit that the student reported to Wallace that he was poked with a pushpin. But they say that Wallace called police.

They also say the plaintiffs inaccurately characterize the school’s proposed safety plan, and argue that the complaint fails to  “state a legally cognizable claim.”

School Department attorney Melissa Hewey on Monday said the plaintiffs make some “creative legal theories, but case law just doesn’t support those claims. I anticipate we’ll ask the court to dismiss the case on legal grounds.”

On Tuesday, plaintiffs’ David Webbert said he was “surprised by how uninformative the (defendants’) answer was. … It seemed to deny things that were indisputable, like certain things that were right from the MHRC report.”

Webbert said he was “disappointed” the defendants consistently claimed to have”no information or belief” about multiple aspects of the case, such as the alleged sexual assaults.

“To have them admit they hadn’t investigated sexual assaults, that was pretty shocking,” Webbert said.

As for the defense that no “legally cognizable” claims were made, Webbert argued that “they’re saying (this case) is so unimportant and trivial it shouldn’t have been filed. … that’s disappointing given how serious the allegations are.”

On Monday, U.S. Magistrate Judge John Rich set a deadline to complete discovery by Jan. 8, 2016. A trial is not expected until next May.

Walter Wuthmann can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow Walter on Twitter: @wwuthmann.

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Brunswick/Harpswell reporter for The Forecaster. Bowdoin College grad, San Francisco Bay Area native. Follow for municipal, school, community, and environmental news from the Midcoast.