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Lawsuit: Baltimore Co. failed to address reported high school cyberbullying

The parents of an Eastern Technical High School student have sued one of her classmates for allegedly defaming their daughter in social media postings, as well as the principal and the Baltimore County school board for not taking proper steps to address cyberbullying.

John Pfeifer and Kimberly Kafka filed the complaint Wednesday on behalf of their daughter alleging a “cruel and malicious campaign of cyberbullying” by a student using a fake social media account and “the appalling unwillingness of the Baltimore County School Defendants to take action to enforce their own policies.”

The social media account claimed to be the plaintiff’s and “made a series of false and defamatory assertions regarding (her) character, physical appearance, and sexual activity,” according to the complaint. The postings, which began in 2016 and continued for more than a year, were seen and shared by her classmates.

The lawsuit, filed in Baltimore County Circuit Court, seeks damages for defamation, invasion of privacy, negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress and names as defendants the student and her mother as well as the Board of Education of Baltimore County and Eastern Tech and its principal, Christene Michelle Anderson.

“Filing suit was a very tough decision for (the plaintiff) and her family,” attorney Matthew A.S. Esworthy, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said in a statement. “Our hope is that, by seeking accountability from the county school (system) and from (the plaintiff’s) attackers, the next generation of students will be protected and the next wave of students considering venturing down the road of cyberbullying will be deterred.”

Esworthy, a partner at Bowie & Jensen LLC in Towson, is joined on the lawsuit by associate Cynthia L. Polasko.

A spokeswoman for Baltimore County Public Schools declined to comment Thursday on the lawsuit.

The lawsuit claims the defendant student used her own social media accounts to make defamatory postings about the plaintiff on Instagram and Snapchat. The plaintiff then received a direct message on Instagram in June 2017 from an imitation account using photos of her stolen from her personal account, which was private and only able to be viewed by followers she permitted, according to the complaint.

The plaintiff suspected the defendant was behind the account and asked her about it, but the defendant denied creating it, the complaint states. Anderson, the school principal, was made aware of the posts the following day and the plaintiff’s mother reported the alleged bullying to the police, who determined the fake account had originated from an IP address associated with the defendant’s mother, the complaint states.

The plaintiff’s parents told the school about the issue and filled out forms used to report bullying, and administrators said they would investigate last August but soon stopped providing updates, according to the lawsuit. The plaintiff remains in classes with the defendant and was told to use a “flash pass” and leave the classroom if she feels uncomfortable or threatened by the defendant’s presence, “which interrupts her own education and … only serves to punish (the plaintiff) by requiring to remove herself from any harmful situation,” according to the lawsuit.

“In short, (the plaintiff’s) victimhood has been perpetuated, while her cyberbully has faced no consequences,” the complaint states.

The lawsuit accuses the school officials of failing to follow policies established to address cyberbullying, including exercising the option to suspend a student found to be in violation or excluding them from participating in extracurricular activities, and seeks a writ of mandamus ordering the board to protect the plaintiff from cyberbullying and “impose consequences” on the defendant.

The case is John Pfeifer et al. v. Julia Flanagan et al.

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