In lawsuits filed in two state courts, students have alleged that they were subjected to intense bullying by their teachers—an alarming trend, according to plaintiff attorneys who handle these cases. In South Carolina, a high school math teacher allegedly labeled a student “gay,” called him names and taunted him, and encouraged classmates to join in the bullying, leading the boy to attempt suicide. (Doe v. Charleston Co. Sch. Dist., No. 2013-CP-10-5111 (S.C., Charleston Co. Com. Pleas filed Aug. 20, 2013).)
A group of Connecticut parents and their children claim a third-grade teacher aggressively harassed students if they did not answer a question correctly or complete a homework assignment properly. (Keeton v. Weiner, No. NNH-CV13-6041584-S (Conn., New Haven Co. Super. filed Sept. 11, 2013).) While the teachers are the bullies, plaintiff attorneys say the root of the problem is the schools’ and school districts’ failure to implement and follow state-mandated antibullying policies and failure to train, supervise, and reprimand their teachers.
In Doe, a West Ashley High School student and his mother sued the Charleston County School District for gross negligence, alleging that it failed to properly hire, train, and supervise Alan Ingram, who bullied the student plaintiff. Beginning in early April, Ingram called the boy various names, belittled him, and encouraged students to bully him on a daily basis, according to the complaint. The boy said he felt helpless because the bully was a teacher, and he thought he could not report the bullying to school administration. He attempted to commit suicide by hanging himself, and he is now being home-schooled and is undergoing mental health counseling. The plaintiffs seek damages for pain and suffering and past and future medical bills.
Ingram, who is still teaching at West Ashley, was not named as a defendant. Ithaca, N.Y., attorney William Friedlander, who handles bullying litigation, said it’s extremely difficult to sue the offending teachers directly because of issues with tenure and teacher unions, and some states have governmental tort immunity statutes that prevent it. Although many states—including South Carolina—require schools to have antibullying policies, Friedlander said they often don’t implement the policies or adhere to them.
“These cases revolve around assessing what policies are needed, planning and promulgating them, instituting them, and then reformulating the policies that aren’t working,” he said. “The reason that teacher bullying is a problem is that the schools haven’t developed programs to deal with it, and that’s what these [antibullying] statutes are supposed to be doing.”
Friedlander also said that a pattern of prior bullying and a lack of supervision and training are crucial to the plaintiffs’ case. “I am sure that this isn’t the first anti-gay thing that the teacher has said, and there were probably warning signs all over the place,” he said.
In Keeton, a group of parents and their children at Roberto Clemente Leadership Academy in New Haven, Conn., sued the city; its Board of Education; the school principal, Pam Franco; and the teacher, Jonathan Weiner, for assault, negligence, negligent infliction of emotional distress, claims against the city and the Board of Education to indemnify Weiner and Franco in the lawsuit, and violation of several Connecticut statutes as a result of Weiner’s bullying. The plaintiffs allege that from October 2012 to February 2013, Weiner yelled and got in the students’ faces, threw things at them, kicked and slammed books against their desks, cursed under his breath, and even threw a desk at the back of the classroom, almost hitting a student. The teacher has resigned, and the children are in counseling.
East Haven, Conn., attorney Patricia Cofrancesco, who represents the Keeton plaintiffs, said that the biggest challenge is overcoming governmental immunity.
“The complaint needed to be crafted extremely carefully to bring allegations that are on target and outside the defense of governmental immunity. We are alleging the exceptions [to governmental immunity]—ministerial acts that were committed, state standards were violated that the school was governed by, and the children were subject to imminent harm.”
Cofrancesco said that more students likely will be joining the lawsuit. “All these kids have been traumatized. They don’t want to go to that school even though the teacher isn’t there anymore,” she said. “Some of these kids complained to the principal . . . and she did nothing, so they don’t feel like they are in a safe environment.”