Settlement reached in PSD student harassment case
Posted 22 April 2006 - 01:36 PM
The lawsuit brought by a father against the Pacifica School District for the name calling and bullying suffered by his son at Ingrid B. Lacy Middle School was settled Friday, a week and a half after an order for summary judgment effectively dismissed the federal court claims against the school district.
While the terms of the settlement agreement in Shaposhnikov vs. Pacifica School District, et al. are confidential, accord was reached in a mediation session before U.S. District Court Judge Maria Elena James.
"It resolved everything," said John Shupe, of Shupe and Finklestein, attorney for the Pacifica School District, "The summary judgment order severely undercut their claims. There wasn't a whole lot left. It's incredibly sad that so much public money had to be spent to fight such meritless claims."
According to the San Mateo County Schools Insurance Group, the PSD spent $139,750 over the last three years defending itself and the three administrators who were named individually as defendants. That figure goes through the end of March. It does not include more attorneys' fees and costs accrued in the case this month. The San Mateo County Schools Insurance Group is a self-insurance consortium where school districts contribute an amount annually that will be applied toward legal expenses, property loss, worker's compensation claims or personal injuries. The account is reviewed annually. If more money is needed, the school district contributes more. If less is needed, the excess is given back at the end of the year. Because the contribution is general fund money, there are no restrictions on how it can be spent once it returns to the school district.
Mark Shaposhnikov, the plaintiff whose son experienced the name calling and bullying described in the lawsuit, responded to Shupe's comment that the case had no merit.
"It settled. It was settled to mutual satisfaction. It was a matter of principle and justice for my kid. It shouldn't have gotten to this point. After the first case, (Kristina Krow on behalf of her son vs. Pacifica School District, also for harassment), it shouldn't have happened again. Hopefully, they will learn their lesson. No merit to the case? They never denied that what happened to my son happened. Whatever happened to my son shouldn't happen to any child in any school. If you're not going to fight for your child, no one else will. If you are not going to protect your child, no one else will," Shaposhnikov said.
PSD Superintendent Jim Lianides is pleased to have this case behind him.
"The district is very pleased that Judge Illston's favorable ruling on the motion for summary judgment set the stage for a swift conclusion to this lawsuit. The summary judgment, which dismissed all federal and state claims against the district, clearly indicated that the Ingrid B. Lacy staff properly investigated all reported complaints of harassment and took appropriate actions against offending students. With this case now behind us, the staff at Ingrid B. Lacy Middle School can continue its hard work to promote the welfare and academic progress of all students without further diversions of valuable time and resources," he said.
Judge Susan Illston of the U.S. District Court in San Francisco last Tuesday granted in part the summary judgment motion brought by Shupe.
"The decision represents a substantial victory for the school district. The judge agreed there was no factual or legal basis for plaintiff's claim that the school district violated his federal rights or was indifferent to his complaints of peer harassment," Shupe said.
However, the judge left open the federal claims against the individual defendants, former PSD Superintendent Michele Garside, former director of pupil and personnel services Tom Zach and Ingrid B. Lacy Middle School Principal Kitty Mindel. Both Zach and Garside no longer work for PSD. The judge requested both attorneys file additional briefings on that issue and on remanding the case to state court. Had the case not settled, she would have made additional rulings about those issues.
The parents of the six students who were individually named as defendants because they had allegedly engaged in the harassment settled out of court about a year ago for an undisclosed sum.
PSD officials expressed their joy about the ruling in a press release on Thursday, a day before the case settled.
"The Pacifica School District welcomes Judge Illston's summary judgment ruling and has from the very beginning believed that school administrators at Ingrid B. Lacy School acted properly and diligently to address all harassment complaints brought to the attention of staff. While this summary judgment does not yet put an end to this case, the ruling represents a huge positive step in the successful defense of the Pacifica School District and staff against this lawsuit. The favorable ruling will also allow for the Ingrid B. Lacy administration and staff to focus on the education of their students instead of preparing for an upcoming trial over claims the judge has ruled meritless. It is extremely unfortunate that an enormous amount of staff time needed to be diverted from educational priorities and a considerable amount of public funds needed to be spent by the San Mateo County Schools Insurance Group, a countywide self-insurance pool, in order to defend the Pacifica School District against these meritless claims. These funds and staff time could have been redirected to the continuous improvement of children's education, which is the mission of public schools," states the press statement Lianides released on behalf of the PSD.
The facts of the case, as described in the summary judgment order, describe a middle school student who stood out in his appearance because of the way he dressed and because of his achievements as a competitive ballroom dancer. His classmates called him "gay" or "Counterpunch" and launched frequent attacks of mostly verbal, but some physical, harassment at him through his sixth and seventh grade years. Ingrid B. Lacy School personnel made announcements to entire classes admonishing students not to engage in the name-calling and bullying, they notified parents whose students were identified as harassers and they suspended those students for committing harassment. An "anti-bullying pledge" was sent home to families. On a few occasions, they moved troublesome students out of the boy's class. They investigated every incident of harassment that was brought to their attention and they decided how to react to each on a case-by-case basis, not always meting out consequences, the judge's ruling states. As a result, the judge found that PSD did not show deliberate indifference to the complaints of the plaintiff. That was the basis for the summary judgment ruling dismissing the plaintiff's Title IX claims for the PSD.
"Plaintiff has failed to identify with particularity a single incident in which defendants ignored his complaints," the judge wrote in the summary judgment order. In fact, because of his father's request that every meeting with the plaintiff be attended by his dad or by his attorney, IBL staff felt constricted in their ability to address each incident of harassment, the judge noted.
In addition, the court found that the harassment did not interfere with the plaintiff's ability to complete an education. He graduated at the top of his class with a 4.0 grade point average.
The official record in the court case outlines episodes of harassment beginning on Oct. 7, 2002, the boy's sixth grade year. The boy put up with name calling, nasty comments and a couple of incidents of physical bullying that year. In response to the first few incidents, IBL staff put the word out to the teachers to watch for any more episodes. In Dec. 2002, the plaintiff reported a student threw gum in his hair. In the spring of 2003, in addition to the name-calling, other students menacingly laughed at the plaintiff. In May 2003, the harassment became more elaborate. A boy said to the plaintiff, "if you let me touch your backpack I will be your girlfriend." Another student pushed the plaintiff and laughed at him. Upon investigation, IBL Assistant Principal Martin Harrington determined that the plaintiff had been the one who instigated the pushing and teasing incident and that the action did not constitute sexual harassment. When plaintiff complained that another student said, "I am going to kill you someday," Harrington warned that student, but took no further action because no one else heard the comment.
At the beginning of the plaintiff's seventh grade year, he reported being teased in phys. ed. class when a student approached him and started dancing, but Harrington determined the other boy was innocently showing off his own dance steps. By the end of October, however, another incident in phys. ed. class occurred. Some students told the plaintiff, "Be careful with the ball because you don't want to break your fingernails." After investigating, Harrington took no action. Later, Harrington suspended three students who rolled up their shirts, pretended to be girls and waved to the plaintiff, but the suspensions were reversed because the plaintiff himself did not think the boys were waving at him. In another incident, a boy said to plaintiff, "thank you for getting me into trouble in P.E. class." Harrington took no disciplinary action because he believed the statement was genuine.
In November 2003, plaintiff reported being called a "pimp" and "prostitute" by other students. Harrington investigated and discovered he had, in fact, dressed as a pimp for Halloween and was being "taunted" by people who were indeed his friends. Harrington tried to conduct a group mediation session for those students but it was never held.
In December, a student called the plaintiff "fruitcake," "Starscream" and "female bastard" and threatened to kill him. Harrington suspended the student and removed him from plaintiff's class. He also reported the death threat to the police. Another death threat occurred in February 2004. That student, as well, was removed from plaintiff's class and plaintiff's father called the police.
Early in 2004, another student pretended to kick the plaintiff behind his back. A teacher warned the student, but took no further action. A student was placed in in-house suspension for saying "Tyler likes (plaintiff) and wants to go out with him." Another student accused plaintiff of bankrupting the school district because of his harassment claims; he was suspended for three days.
In March 2004, plaintiff reported a student was about to call plaintiff a name but stopped, then said, "I am not going to say anything else because you are probably going to sue me." Also that March, plaintiff reported students were writing derogatory comments about him on an Internet site. Harrington could not determine who made the comments, but he blocked use of the site on school computers.
To establish a claim of retaliation in the federal court case, plaintiff alleged a teacher told him not to report harassment because it would hurt his career, also that he was forced to fold anti-bullying mailers during his time working as an office assistant and that the school officials announced he had filed a lawsuit and should be left alone.
"As a matter of law, these actions are not sufficient to constitute retaliation," the summary judgment order read.
In another wrinkle to this complex case, Pacifica resident Mark Stechbart filed a complaint with the California State Bar Association against plaintiff's attorney Paul Smoot. Stechbart objected to the nature of a Nov. 9, 2005, paid advertisement in the Pacifica Tribune, which read "Stop the Bullying" and professed to be from "Concerned Parents of Pacifica." The ad was placed by Bernie Sifry, a consultant associated with Smoot and Shaposhnikov. Stechbart asserted to the State Bar he traced the phone number used in the ad to a business in Burlingame, whose owner did not know that Concerned Parents of Pacifica was using his phone. The street address named is a San Mateo address with a zip code from San Francisco.
"All data is false and deliberately misleading,' Stechbart wrote in his complaint to the State Bar. Stechbart alleges Smoot's associates were trying to solicit clients to join in the lawsuit or to locate information or witnesses. Rule 1-400 of the State Bar's Rules of Professional Conduct prohibits solicitation of clients in a fraudulent or misleading manner.
Smoot was unavailable for comment Monday and Tuesday for this article.
me i figure that's how they should treat it from the start. if it takes a parent lighting a fire under the school staff's collective ass and or taking the board of education to court to set things right then so be it.
when it becomes physical it becomes assault which is a crime.
when they attempt to strip a person of his right to self defense when said person is physically assaulted in an unprovoked fight then they themselves are guilty of child abuse or child endangerment as it could also be called. thereby leaving the parent to resort to legal action against the staff, the bully, the bully's parents and possibly the B.O.E. as well
all i'm saying is that self defense under NORMAL circustances is not a crime nor should it be treated as one without justifiable suspicion and concrete evidence and giving the victim a chance to prove his innocense
that is just something they will have to learn sooner or later, preferably sooner.
or is INNOCENT UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY nothing more more then a load of horse Blot nowadays.
it's like from the victims point of view why should they follow the rules in this regard if all it ever does is victimise them for excercising their right to self defense while it allows the bully to repeatedly use the kid for his own personel punching bag.
me i figure that's one of the main contributing reasons some kids grow up through school having a total disrespect for the law.
Posted 22 April 2006 - 03:35 PM
Posted 22 April 2006 - 03:39 PM
why respect the justice system if the only purpose it serves is to victimise you every time you excercise your personel right to self defense within reason.
that's pretty much how it comes accross to the kids.
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