Mediation fails in Brunswick school discrimination case

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BRUNSWICK — Talks aimed at reaching a settlement between parties in a discrimination case brought against the School Department by the parent of a student have failed, according to the Maine Human Rights Commission.

The failure of mediation may expose the department to a lawsuit from both the parent and the MHRC.

A 90-day conciliation process was triggered in July, when human rights commissioners, in a divided vote, ruled that there were “reasonable grounds” to believe the student had been discriminated against while attending Brunswick Junior High School from 2010-2012.

The deadline for that process expired on Tuesday, and on the same day the parties were informed that conciliation had failed in a letter from MHRC Compliance Manager Jill Duson. 

Although the conciliation deadline has passed, the three parties can still pursue an agreement or separate agreements outside of MHRC auspices, said Executive Director Amy Sneirson. 

“It is not at all uncommon for parties not to be able to get to a resolution within the deadline but to later reach an agreement, or even to reach an agreement after a lawsuit has been filed,” Sneirson said. 

The commission and the parent, who filed the complaint on behalf of her son in 2012, now have 90 days in which to file a civil lawsuit against the School Department under Maine’s human rights laws. 

The parent claims her son, then 13 years old, faced chronic emotional and physical abuse, including alleged sexual violence, while at BJHS. The abuse forced him to be hospitalized and eventually leave the school for good in October 2012. 

Over the two years he attended the junior high, school officials did not do enough to prevent or address the bullying, the parent contended. The complaint to the MHRC claimed that the bullying targeted her son because of his gender and perceived sexual orientation.

The department has maintained that every incident was thoroughly investigated and inappropriate actions were disciplined through anti-bullying “rubric” which has received positive state and national attention.

In a report released in June, however, MHRC investigator Victoria Ternig determined that reasonable grounds existed to believe the student was discriminated against and that the department allowed a hostile educational environment to persist “for a lengthy period of time.”

In her conclusion, Ternig noted that while BJHS had good policies in place, by focusing on a case-by-case basis staff missed a larger pattern of harassment.

Elek Miller, an attorney for the department, called that conclusion “erroneous” in a response to the report filed on June 30.

“The investigator wrongly concluded that the school failed to look at the big picture,” Miller stated, adding that BSD staff promptly investigated every incident and intervened in “varied and thoughtful” ways. They included setting up a support team for the student, meeting regularly with the parent and doing periodic check-ins.

The case will now be turned over to the MHRC legal counsel, who will make a recommendation to commissioners on whether to proceed with litigation, Sneirson said.

The commission is likely to discuss and vote on the the case at its November meeting, she added.

Although the commission only has 90 days to file a suit, the parent could file a civil suit under other laws that are not affected by the deadline, Sneirson said. 

“It is not uncommon for a complaint to file a lawsuit that includes Maine Human Rights Act claims and also other claims,” she said. 

Sneirson would not discuss the content of the talks or say how many times the parties met, citing the confidentiality of the process.

School Superintendent Paul Perzanoski in a statement Wednesday said the department was not abandoning a potential settlement with the family.

 “Although the commision’s window for conciliation may have passed we have certainly have not given up on reconciling this matter with the family,” Perzanoski said. 

 “We hope that they have not given up on that possibility,” Perzanoski added. “We will always remain open to talking to families about these issues.”

Courtney Beer, an attorney from Pine Tree Legal Services representing the student in the case, did not respond to multiple phone calls and an email requesting comment. 

This article was edited on 10/16/14 to correct the name of MHRC Compliance Officer Jill Duson.

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