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Suit seeks $1.2 million for systemic bullying

In 2005, state legislators passed the Safe Schools Reporting Act, requiring that county boards of education report acts of bullying.

Four years later, the Maryland State Department of Education, recognizing that bullying in schools was a persistent problem, issued a model policy for local boards of education to follow.

Neither of these acts, according to a lawsuit filed last week in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, helped a 16-year-old Harford County boy avoid years of systemic verbal teasing and physical torment.

The suit states that the boy, identified as SB, has been diagnosed with nonverbal learning disability, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and other educational disabilities. His parents claim the school administration was aware students were calling him names like “freak show,” “buck teeth,” and “low life,” and that he had been punched and had rocks thrown at him. They say the school did not take any action to document the attacks or prevent further ones.

“The BOE … acted with deliberate indifference to the bullying and harassment that SB has been subjected to since entering Aberdeen High School in 2010,” the lawsuit states. “[School officials] had the authority to stop the bullying and harassment. They are aware of the ineffectiveness of their efforts but were, and continue to be indifferent to the ongoing bullying and harassment of SB and other Aberdeen High School students with disabilities must endure on a daily basis.”

Teresa D. Kranefeld, a spokeswoman for Harford County Public Schools, confirmed that the school system has received the lawsuit, but would not discuss the matter further.

“As this is current pending litigation, I cannot discuss the details of the case.” Kranefeld said in an emailed statement Tuesday afternoon.

Wayne D. Steedman, an attorney at Callegary & Steedman P.A. in Baltimore, is representing SB and his parents. Steedman would like to see wide-ranging change — not just in Harford County, but in all school districts.

“This is a problem that is nationwide,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday. “Kids with disabilities are vulnerable, and other kids will prey on them. So schools need to take greater accountability. I am really hoping that this will force the school system to look at this problem in a new light. It is a serious problem and the steps they have taken haven’t been effective. The message needs to come from the top that this is a problem.”

The state’s 2009 policy lays out broad guidelines for schools to prevent bullying and harassment, including the implementation of anti-bullying programs, staff training, remedial measures to correct inappropriate behavior and counseling.

The policy, however, is not applied consistently, said Maureen van Stone, associate director of the Maryland Center for Developmental Disabilities at Kennedy Krieger Institute. School systems do not always provide access to bullying, harassment and intimidation forms, and the follow-through with families about the problems is spotty.

“Children with disabilities are often being bullied, harassed and intimated on the basis of their disability, and parents just don’t know how to address the issue,” van Stone said Tuesday. “Parents and students don’t know how to report it and it’s the rare exception that it comes to the appropriate people’s attention. Unfortunately, it takes something like this to bring it to the school’s attention.”

A central claim in the lawsuit is that the school failed to complete the required bullying/harassment form and school officials failed to inform the student and the parents about the form.

SB, now a junior at Aberdeen High School, and his parents are seeking $1.2 million from the board and $300,000 each from William Lawrence, the county’s associate superintendent, and Michael O’Brien, the school’s principal. Lawrence and O’Brien are being sued in their official capacities and as individuals.

“[Lawrence was] responsible for ensuring that the local educational agency acts in accordance with the law in the delivery of education services to disabled students … and that students with disabilities attending schools [in Harford] are not subjected to disability-based discrimination,” the suit states.

According to the suit, SB has been teased since he was in elementary school.

“From third to fifth grade SB was frequently teased and bullied because of behaviors and mannerisms that were related to his disabilities,” the suit alleges. “The teasing took the form of name-calling — “bucktooth,” “nerd,” “SpongeBob,” etc. He was ostracized and friendless throughout this time.”

The suit states the bullying and teasing became worse — including physical attacks — while SB attended Aberdeen Middle School. SB said he was “knocked down to the ground on several occasions,” and that the stress caused him to see a psychotherapist in April 2009.

“SB continued having difficulty concentrating in class and tried to avoid school,” the lawsuit claims. “In early June, SB’s mother conducted an in-school observation and witnessed students openly bullying and harassing each other with school personnel doing nothing to intervene. It was clear from [the mother’s] observation that the students who were the victims of these assaults were also students with disabilities and the school was indifferent to the harassment of them.”

The complaint said that once SB began attending Aberdeen High School, the physical aggression escalated. When he tried to stick up for a friend in May 2012, he was suspended for 10 days with a referral for additional days submitted to the superintendent. SB’s mother claims she met with O’Brien, the school’s principal, and asked what could be done to stop the harassment.

“Mr. O’Brien stated that he intended to do nothing because statistically bullying drops off in the 11th and 12th grade,” the complaint states.

The parents appealed the suspension to the county Board of Education, and said they discovered that the requisite bullying/harassment forms “had never been completed all the years SB has been victimized.”

Steedman, who specializes in representing children with disabilities, said what has happened to SB in not only “not right, it’s illegal.”

“The [Americans with Disabilities Act] has a provision that prohibits retaliation against individuals who advocate for persons with disabilities,” Steedman said. “When a child cannot concentrate on his work and cannot walk through the schools without fear of being bullied, it impacts his access to education, and he has a right to education, and so that is a civil rights violation.

He said the principal “was in a position to do something and frankly used his position not to do something but to retaliate. And the superintendent was aware of what was going on and helped perpetuate it by endorsing the misconduct.”