Archive for Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Judge orders school bullying suit to trial

June 29, 2005

A U.S. District Court judge on Friday rejected the Tonganoxie school district's attempt to throw out a lawsuit brought by a former student, alleging other students sexually harassed him to the point that he left school three months into his junior year.

A trial on the lawsuit is scheduled to start Aug. 2 in U.S. District Court in Kansas City, Kan.

The federal judge did, however, remove one claim from the lawsuit that alleged the school district was required to supervise other students so those students would not emotionally harm the former student.

The judge said the law covers cases of physical harm, but not emotional harm.

The lawsuit was filed in May 2004, and in it, the former student alleges he was called names such as "fag," "faggot," "queer," "flamer" and "masturbator," from his seventh-grade year until he quit school as a junior. The suit also alleges the harassment prevented the student access to an education.

In his ruling, Judge John Lungstrum said, "The harassment did not involve a few isolated events. It was unrelenting for years. Although some of the isolated incidents could be characterized as mere insults, teasing and name-calling, collectively, they reflect much more than 'simple acts' of teasing and name-calling. They reflect a pattern of harassment that was arguably severe and pervasive."

Named as defendants in the lawsuit are the school district, along with these individuals: Superintendent Richard Erickson; board members Darlyn Hansen, Bob DeHoff, Dick Dean, Leana Leslie, Ron Moore and Kay Smith; former board member Rick Lamb; Steve Woolf, Tonganoxie Junior High principal; former high school principal Mike Bogart; and Brent Smith, THS vice principal.

The judge's ruling on Friday came after the school defendants asked the judge, essentially, to throw out the lawsuit, which was procedurally a logical step for the district. But the judge determined the suit has enough merit to proceed to trial.

Six months ago, the two sides went through a court-ordered mediation process, which did not lead to settlement. Since then, both sides have taken depositions and used other means to gather facts in the lawsuit, which was filed in May 2004.

The former student's attorney, Arthur Benson, Kansas City, Mo., said he was pleased with the judge's ruling.

"We believe this is an important case involving school bullying of, in this case a gender-based, sexual harassment," Benson said. "We look forward to presenting the facts to a jury in August."

Steve Pigg, a Topeka attorney who is representing the school district in the lawsuit, said that he could not comment on the judge's ruling.

A total of 15 pages in the judge's 36-page ruling center on a history of the former student's difficulties in the Tonganoxie school district. The judge wrote that the former student was harassed, based on untrue rumors started by another student that he was a homosexual.

The harassment began in October 1999 and continued through November 2004, when the student left Tonganoxie High School, the ruling said. He now has achieved a General Education Development degree and is attending junior college and working.

According to the ruling, the harassment occurred many times and in a wide variety of locations at the junior high and high school, including the junior high lunch room, at basketball games, in gym class, in school hallways, on a school bus, classrooms and in strength training class.

In November 2003, the day before the former student permanently left school during his junior year, Bogart issued an announcement -- prohibiting at the high school any use of the terms "gay" or "fag" -- that teachers were to read in their first-hour classes. After that announcement was read, the judge's ruling says, the student again was harassed.

That night, the former student begged his parents to let him quit school. And through the conclusion of that semester, the former student completed school work at home, helped by a substitute teacher.

In the lawsuit, the former student alleges that district officials issued warnings, rather than punishment to the students who allegedly were harassing the former student.

"It (the harassment) involved severe and pervasive harassment that lasted for years, with other students engaging in the same form of harassment after those who were counseled had stopped, and the school rarely took any disciplinary measures above and beyond merely talking to and warning the harassers," the judge's ruling said.

"It was not until the plaintiff's eleventh grade year that the school began taking measures that were arguably more aggressive. By that time, the harassment had been going on for a number of years without the school handing out any meaningful disciplinary measures to deter other students from perpetuating the cycle of harassment."

The judge said it is a question for a jury "whether the school's belatedly stepped-up efforts were 'too little, too late.'"

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