Brunswick schools face Maine Human Rights Commission lawsuit over bullying

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BRUNSWICK — The Maine Human Rights Commission plans to sue the School Department for allegedly discriminating against a former junior high school student who claims the school failed to protect him when he was physically and emotionally abused by other students. 

Commissioners voted 3-1 on Monday, Dec. 15, to follow the recommendation of their attorney and file a lawsuit against the department. A suit would be the first ever filed by the commission in a case involving school bullying.

In an interview Wednesday, Commissioner Sallie Chandler said the panel decided it wanted to take on the problem.

“I think that this is a case where we need to draw the line,” Chandler said. “People need to understand what that means and how that feels to the person being bullied.

“It’s a hot topic, and it really needs to be addressed,” she added. “It needs to stop.”

Chandler and Commissioners Deborah Wentworth and John Norman voted to litigate, with Chairman Arnold Clark opposed. Contacted Tuesday, Clark referred questions to MHRC staff.

In an email Tuesday, MHRC attorney Barbara Archer Hirsch said a complaint under the Maine Human Rights Act will be filed against the School Department by Jan. 12, 2015. 

Lawsuits filed by the commission often seek equitable relief, like court orders prohibiting discriminatory practices and requiring anti-discrimination training and education, Hirsch explained.

“The MHRC pursues litigation in the public interest, so our desired outcome is to ensure that protections are put in place that will prevent unlawful discrimination from continuing to occur in the future,” she said. 

Commissioners consider several factors when deciding whether to pursue litigation, including the strength of the case, whether the complainant is already ably represented, and the commision’s available legal resources.

“There’s lots of issues we consider,” MHRC Executive Director Amy Sneirson said. “It’s not a simple ‘do we think it’s a sexy issue?’ It’s ‘is it an important issue to the commission?'”

While the commission does not sue on behalf of private individuals, cases can be joined if a complainant also sues on his or her own, Sneirson said.

The complaint against the Brunswick schools was filed with MHRC by the student’s mother in 2012. It alleged that her son was consistently harassed and abused by other students, including alleged sexual assaults, between 2010 and 2012, and that school administrators did not do enough to prevent or remedy the abuse.

In July, following the findings of a report by MHRC investigator Victoria Ternig, the commission found reasonable grounds to determine there was discrimination.

In her report, Ternig concluded that the school had good policies in place to address bullying, but it responded to the student’s complaints on a case-by-case basis, instead of recognizing the wider pattern of bullying. As a result, she said, a hostile environment was allowed to persist over several years.

The School Department has consistently denied it discriminated against the student, insists it thoroughly investigated every complaint of bullying, and addressed inappropriate behavior.

In a brief statement sent by email Wednesday, Superintendent of Schools Paul Perzanoski declined to comment on the case, except to say the department believes the commission’s vote was “the next step in their internal process.” 

When asked if the School Department is still negotiating a settlement with the complainant, Perzanoski said “the district will always have an open door to discuss this issue.”

The anti-bullying program at Brunswick Junior High School has been adopted as a model by the Maine Department of Education and received attention for its data-driven, peer-to-peer rubric approach to addressing bullying. 

But Chandler, echoing Ternig’s conclusions, said Brunswick needed to do more to prevent and address bullying in this case.

“The policies are great if they are on paper, but you really have to act on them,” she said. “I don’t think it was intentional, but I don’t think they worked it all together and said ‘this child is being bullied.'”

Courtney Beer, an attorney at Pine Tree Legal Services who has represented the student and his mother, did not respond to several phone calls and emails requesting comment. 

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

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