Maine Human Rights Commission, parent sue Brunswick School Department, principal over bullying

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BRUNSWICK — Attorneys representing the mother of a former Brunswick Junior High School student and the Maine Human Rights Commission filed a federal civil rights lawsuit Tuesday against the School Department and BJHS Principal Walter Wallace.

The lawsuit was not unexpected after nearly six months of out-of-court talks failed to settle claims the school did not protect the boy from pervasive bullying between 2010 and 2012.

The allegations of “unlawful discrimination” range from the boy being repeatedly called “gay,” to being stabbed with a pencil and pushpin, to three claims of sexual assault.

MHRC Executive Director Amy Sneirson has said she is not aware of any previous case of the commission suing a school department on grounds of bullying.

The commission voted to join the mother in litigation in December 2014, based on the findings of a report by MHRC investigator Victoria Ternig.

The lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court, uses pseudonyms for the plaintiff and her son to “protect him from additional stigmatization and trauma.”

Wallace, who is sued in an individual and official capacity, is accused of being “deliberately indifferent to the harassment and abuse of (the child) … by a group of sexually aggressive and violent male students.”

The court filing says Wallace admitted to MHRC’s investigator that complaints from female students about derogatory sexual comments by male students “were looked at and treated on a higher level than … the harassment and abuse of … other boys.”

It says Wallace responded to complaints of harassment by saying “boys will be boys,” even though two other unidentified students reported harassment by the same group of boys who harassed the plaintiff’s son.

One student in the same sixth-grade class complained of “unwelcome sexual comments and advances” by other boys in the boys’ bathroom, and eventually became afraid to use it.

That student left BJHS in the seventh grade.

A different student said he had been attacked and beaten by another boy during a football game at the high school. Wallace allegedly told a complaining parent that there was “nothing he could do about it” because the attack did not occur on BJHS property.

Wallace could not be reached for a response. His secretary on Wednesday said he would be out of the office until Friday.

The School Department responded to the filing with a public letter posted online Wednesday.

In it, Superintendent of Schools Paul Perzanoski said a school investigation found most of the allegations false, and that BJHS and Wallace handled the complaints with “skill and sensitivity.”

“There are events alleged in the complaint that simply did not happen and most importantly, the allegations concerning Mr. Wallace are unfounded and untrue,” Perzanoski said.

Perzanoski also noted the school’s anti-bullying program has received national and state recognition. The Maine Department of Education has held up the BJHS program as a model.

The Maine Principal’s Association named Wallace its 2015 principal of the year.

MHRC attorney Barbara Archer Hirsch said she was not sure which allegations the department claims are false, but maintained that the commission’s 2014 investigation found “enough in the record” to establish “reasonable grounds that the harassment occurred.”

She added that MHRC, which litigates based on a vote by its five commissioners, takes on only select cases.

“When we do vote to litigate it’s because we feel strongly about the issue,” she said.

The plaintiffs are seeking declaratory and injunctive relief, demanding revised policies addressing harassment, and maintaining a non-discrimination compliance officer and on-call counselor. They also seek unspecified compensatory and punitive monetary damages.

Archer Hirsch said that it would probably be about a year before, or if, the case goes to trial.

In the meantime, attorneys for the School Department and Wallace will prepare an answer to be filed with the court.

In his letter to the Brunswick community, Perzanoski said “litigation is a process that will take some time and while the lawsuit is pending, we urge you not to allow it to distract from the good work that our administrators, teachers, and support staff are doing every day for the children in our community.”

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

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.