A federal lawsuit has been filed against the Harford County Public Schools and two school officials on behalf of a disabled student, who the suit claims was subjected to years of continuous bullying and threats from other students beginning when he was a student at Church Creek Elementary School and continuing when he was a student at Aberdeen Middle and High schools.
The suit contends the school system not only failed to address the problem, but also failed to protect the student from the abuse.
The suit was filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore on behalf of the student, who is identified in a redacted version as SB, a minor, and his guardians, identified as AL, the student's mother, and TL, his stepfather. Though none of the three is identified by name, the suit also identifies TL as the athletic director at Aberdeen High School. Tim Lindecamp is the AHS athletic director.
According to the suit, SB, the student, is an 11th grade student at Aberdeen High School.
The suit alleges intentional discrimination, deliberate indifference, intentional infliction of emotional distress and retaliation against SB's parents by school officials and the school system, as well as violations of constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and equal protection, while also charging the school system with conspiracy, unconstitutional policies and procedures and a violation of the Harford County Code prohibiting discriminatory practices.
"The school system has to do things to ensure bullying is not problematic for my client or problematic for all students," Wayne D. Steedman, the plaintiffs' lawyer, said in a phone interview Thursday. "We need to send a message that this kind of conduct will not be tolerated and they need to stop it."
The suit seeks $1.2 million in damages from the school system and $300,000 each from Michael O'Brien, the Aberdeen High principal, and from William Lawrence, the associate superintendent – the school system's number two post – who announced in February that he is retiring effective July 1. O'Brien and Lawrence have been sued in their official capacities and as individuals, the suit noting that in his position, 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 [Harford] schools are not subjected to disability-based discrimination."
Steedman, who said his main area of practice is working with children with disabilities, said SB "has been suffering for quite a number of years now; that's the reason for the financial demand."
A spokesperson for Harford County Public Schools declined to discuss the litigation.
"I can confirm that yesterday, Wednesday, April 10, we were informed of the lawsuit that you referenced, the details of which are currently being reviewed," Teri Kranefeld, HCPS director of communications, said via e-mail Thursday afternoon. "As this is current pending litigation, I cannot discuss the details of the case."
Among the allegations contained in the suit are the citing of several incidents where school officials did not fill out bullying/harassment incident reports required by Maryland state law and also allegedly failed to inform SB's parents about the incidents or to provide them with information when requested. When SB's mother tried to find out more information about specific incidents and action taken, the suit claims, O'Brien barred her from visiting the school for that purpose and later allegedly retaliated against her husband by canceling his graduate school practicum.
The suit also alleges that school personnel failed to stop bullying of SB when they observed it, as well as bullying of other disabled students, and also failed to take into account SB's individualized education plan, or IEP, which notes that SB has "a specific learning disability in the areas of writing and math."
Steedman said efforts to work out an accommodation with school officials earlier this year and to avoid litigation went nowhere and he particularly blamed Lawrence, saying: "He rejected every remedial measure we suggested and basically dared my clients to sue the school system. He made it abundantly clear there wouldn't be reason to meet with them again because they were not going to budge on anything."
Steedman also said the alleged retaliation against the stepfather was initiated by Lawrence, who said he could take such action at his discretion.
"That's pretty amazing," Steedman said.
History of bullying
According to the suit, SB was first identified as a student with a disability in the spring of 2005 when he was a student at Church Creek Elementary School in Belcamp, where from third to fifth grades, "SB was frequently teased and bullied because of behaviors and mannerisms that were related to his disabilities. During this period, the suit says, SB was subjected to name calling and "was ostracized and friendless through that time."
In sixth grade, the 2007-08 school year, SB attended Aberdeen Middle School, where the suit claims, "The teasing and bullying escalated." In addition to name-calling, the suit continues, other students "would knock his books out of his hands, throw things at him, threaten him and steal his belongings." The suit says SB reported the incidents to school personnel, who the suit says would speak to the offending students, "but the bullying and intimidation persisted." The suit also claims, "School personnel were aware that their actions were ineffective but did nothing more to curb the harassment."
"Additionally," the suit continues, school personnel "did not offer SB or AL the form to report such abuse, nor did the school complete and submit the report to the Maryland Department of Education as required by law." The suit says SB resisted attending school and difficulty focusing on his work.
"The bullying and teasing worsened in the seventh grade and escalated throughout the school year," according to the suit, which at several points gives examples of the names SB was called. The suit also notes that "physical aggression escalated" against SB at this time, and there were incidents of students "following SB home making threats and trying to engage in fights." In addition, the suit says, students allegedly called SB's home and left messages for his parents calling him a slur for homosexual, "because he had a friend at school who was openly gay."