Human rights panel to decide Brunswick school bullying claim

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BRUNSWICK — An investigation by the Maine Human Rights Commission has found reasonable grounds to believe the School Department discriminated against a 13-year-old student who claimed he was physically and emotionally abused by other students at Brunswick Junior High School.

Commissioners are scheduled hear the case Monday, July 14, in Augusta.

If the MHRC agrees with the investigation’s finding, commission staff will facilitate negotiations for a settlement. But if negotiations fail, or even if commissioners reject the investigator’s finding, the complainant still has the right to file a lawsuit.

The student attended Brunswick Junior High School from the beginning of sixth grade in 2010 until October 2012, when he stopped going to school because of the abuse, according to the complaint filed on his behalf. 

During his time at BJHS, the student was harassed because of his “sex or perceived sexual orientation,” the complaint alleges. 

The harassment included inappropriate touching, name-calling, threatening behavior, and physical abuse like being hit with a lacrosse stick, pushed, and stabbed with a pencil.

As early as November 2011, the student’s mother contacted BJHS because he was “stressed and shutting down, unable to complete his work,” according to MHRC documents.

The student’s grades, which started in the A, B, and C range in sixth grade, dropped to the C and D range in eighth grade, the complaint claims, because he could not learn in a threatening environment.

The School Department maintains every complaint made by the boy was thoroughly investigated, and that inappropriate conduct was addressed on a case-by-case basis.

None of the instances of abuse were connected to the student’s sex or sexuality, according to the department’s response, which said that often when investigating the student’s complaints, his “perception of the situation did not line up with the reality of the events,” including allegations of physical abuse. 

“This appeared to be a situation in which one student would tease (the boy) then stop, then a another student would tease (him) and stop. It was not a situation where one student repeatedly teased (the boy) and was permitted to get away with it,” the department told an MHRC investigator.

The school also denied that the student’s grades were affected by the behavior, or that the alleged incidents interfered with his ability to participate in class or school activities. It said he was “an active member of the BJHS community.”

“He ate lunch with his friends, chatted and joked with other students during class, and actively participated in education exercises during class,” the School Department reported to the commission.

In June 2012,  after the student refused to go back to BJHS, school staff met with his parents and created a safety plan, including an adult escort, allowing him to come to class early and leave late, and taking his lunch break in the teacher’s lounge. 

According to the School Department, the student decided not to follow the plan.

In late October 2012, the student reportedly had a panic attack and disclosed to his mother that he had been sexually assaulted by other students three times between November 2011 and May 2012.

His parents reported the allegations to school officials the next day and the School Department and Police Department opened an investigation. 

The students involved in two of the three the alleged assaults were interviewed and denied the accusations, and other students were questioned to see if they had seen anything suspicious, the department reported to the MHRC.

The allegations were “not substantiated” by the department’s investigation and found not credible by the Police Department, the department reported. 

According to the MHRC report, the student was evaluated by a child abuse program in November 2012 and a medical exam during the evaluation found that a lesion on his arm matched the description of the November 2011 assault, involving a classmate allegedly cutting him with a knife. 

A month later, in December 2012, the student was admitted to a hospital because of suicidal thoughts, referred to as “suicidal ideation.” According to the MHRC report, he was subsequently diagnosed with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. 

The student’s after-care referral indicated that the student should not return to BJHS, the report said. The student’s mother requested a superintendent’s agreement to transfer him to another school and the agreement was finalized in January 2013. 

The MHRC probe determined that while BJHS has good policies in place to prevent and stop harassment, school officials did not do enough in this situation. 

“Due to the number of incidents that occurred specifically to (the boy), it is sensible to think that (the School Department) should have honed in on the fact to see that there was a bigger issue instead of handling each incident on a case by case basis for more than two and a half years,” the investigation concluded. 

Superintendent of Schools Paul Perzanoski declined this week to discuss the case.

The junior high school’s anti-bullying program has been recognized by national and local media, and was adopted as a state model in 2013.

The program includes preventive measures, such as engagement with students through posters, presentations and workshops, as well as a progressive disciplinary “rubric” to deal with peer-to-peer complaints.

In an interview Tuesday, BJHS Principal Walter Wallace said data collected in the past four years indicates the program is effective in preventing the same students from repeating inappropriate behavior.

The one promise I make to every student on the first day of school is that if they make a complaint that someone is treating them poorly, than we will look into it and we will take action,” Wallace said.

According to Wallace, BJHS staff fielded roughly 115 peer-to-peer complaints last year. Only 15 complaints involved students who were being disciplined a second time, and only three involved students disciplined more than twice.

Although he is convinced the school’s anti-bullying policy has been effective, Wallace said he and the staff are consistently discussing ways to improve the system.

Nonetheless, the MHRC investigation determined that the student was exposed to a hostile educational environment, and the Brunswick School Department can be held liable for it.

“The facts show that (the boy) subjectively perceived his educational environment to be hostile and abusive,” the investigator’s report said.

The School Department should have recognized its strategy of dealing with the harassment on a case-by-case basis did not prevent the student from facing abuse for more than two years, it concluded.

By failing to look at the overall picture of what was happening,” the report said, “… (the school) allowed a hostile education environment to persist for a lengthy period of time.”

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

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