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Court records detail assaults of special needs teen that led to $300K verdict against Bainbridge Island School District
A Kitsap County Superior Court judge has ordered the Bainbridge Island School District to pay $300,000 to a Bainbridge family after their 14-year-old special needs son was bullied and sexually harassed by other teens at Bainbridge High School and school officials did little to stop the near-constant assaults.
Thomas Vertetis, the attorney who filed a lawsuit against the school district on behalf of the student and his family, said the 14-year-old was tormented by his Bainbridge High schoolmates for a four-month period that started in the teen's freshman year and continued until January 2007, despite the repeated attempts from his parents to get school officials to take action against four other teenagers who were targeting their son.
Vertetis said the victim's mother went to the vice principal at the school at least three times about the attacks.
"She kind of got the proverbial, 'Yeah, we'll look into it,'" Vertetis said.
There were numerous witnesses throughout the school of the bullying, he added.
"There was so much evidence that this kid was getting bullied and they just ignored it," Vertetis said of school officials.
In court documents, Vertetis said the teenager was subjected to more than 75 incidents of "pervasive sexualized assault, harassment, abuse and bullying."
Vertetis said school officials at BHS "were repeatedly notified of the abuse and systematically failed to take any effort to stop it from occurring."
Jan Webster, the student's mother, made repeated requests for officials to do something, as did the teen's health sciences teacher.
Vertetis said the teenager — who was diagnosed with autism (Asperger syndrome) was forced to leave Bainbridge High and enrolled at an alternative high school in Renton.
Officials with the Bainbridge Island School District have turned down repeated requests to comment on the case.
In a statement, the district said: "We deeply regret the situation that occurred in the 2006-2007 school year that led to this verdict."
"After the incident seven years ago, the Bainbridge Island School District updated policies and procedures in regards to harassment, intimidation and bullying. In addition, staff and students receive annual training regarding our policies. The Bainbridge Island School District is committed to providing a safe and supportive environment for all of our students. We will continue to explore research-based strategies for ensuring safe and respectful school environments."
According to court documents, the student was targeted by four older boy students before the start of the school year when they noticed he became uncomfortable after he saw another student urinate in public.
Vertetis said the four students were "frequent flyers" who were known for delinquent behavior.
From the first day of school, Vertetis said, the four students escalated their harassment from exposing their genitalia to the student, to touching him with their private parts, "dry humping" the student and chasing him around with their genitalia exposed.
Vertesis said the abuse took place in the middle of campus at the "wagon wheel" area.
According to the lawsuit, one student also tried to set the teen's hair on fire. At other times, they would taunt him with gay sexual propositions intended to humiliate, threaten and embarrass the teen.
BHS administrators were told of the harassment starting in September 2006 and received repeated warnings and requests to investigate in the months that followed.
On Sept. 26, 2006, Webster, the victim's mother, asked BHS Associate Principal Tina Lemmon to investigate her son's report that other boys were exposing themselves to him.
The family again pressed the school administration the following month to do something, but nothing was done, and the victim's mother estimated she reported the abuse at least 10 to 12 times.
One of the teen's teachers also alerted school administrators about another student flashing the teenager after the victim told her about it following a class presentation on sexual harassment.
A Bainbridge High counselor immediately followed up after hearing of the incident by sending an email to school administrators, but no one followed up or investigated.
Later, in December 2006, the student's mother again contacted BHS administrators about the harassment of her son, but nothing was done.
According to the lawsuit, the four students then began harassing another autistic student, and continued their assaults off-campus and on the internet.
One of the older students put a demeaning photograph of the teen on Myspace with the caption, "Crouching Autism, hidden social skills," a takeoff of a movie title at the time, and other students posted derogatory comments about the teen's handicap.
One of the student harassers also sent an email to the teen's mother, pointing her to the online attacks.
According to court documents, school officials said they did not take action because they knew the name of only one of the students.
Eventually, the Webster family went to Bainbridge police and reported the harassment. They petitioned Kitsap County Superior Court and received a sexual assault protection order against one of the older students who had been harassing their son.
A criminal investigation was launched and the four older students were arrested and charged.
Three of the older students eventually pled guilty in juvenile court to three charges of indecent exposure and received deferred prosecution. They were sentenced to three days of detention, community service, probation and restitution, according to court records.
At the time, the court called the deferred prosecution "an extremely generous deal" and noted the extensive nature of the abuse, and said two of the teens could have faced charges of felony sex crimes and the possibility of life as registered sex offenders.
The attorney for the family also noted that Brent Peterson, then principal of Bainbridge High, had given misleading information to the press when the bullying incidents became news in February 2007, and falsely said the school did not know of the incidents until mid-January 2007. He also noted that a school administrator tried to "circumvent" the suspension process for one of the student bullies so it would stay off his school record and he could transfer to another district.
The damage from the bullying was long-lasting, Vertetis said.
The teen spent 18 months in psychotherapy sessions for emotional and psychological injuries and years of anti-anxiety medication.
Earlier this month, retired Judge Terrence Carroll ruled on behalf of the teen's family and awarded a $300,000 verdict against the school district for the district's failure to protect the student from aggressive bullying and sexual harassment.
The decision on the 2010 lawsuit was tendered on Oct. 18.
Of the $300,000, a total of $250,000 will go to the teen, and both parents will each receive $25,000, Vertetis said.
"This is an important verdict for families with disabled children in the public school system,” Vertetis said after the decision. “This sends a clear message that bullying of any children, let alone our most vulnerable children is clearly unacceptable."
“The attitude of the school district that this type of student victimization happens elsewhere, but not on Bainbridge Island created an environment where the severity of the incidents were downplayed and in some cases completely ignored,” he added. “If our schools refuse to acknowledge the reality that sexual harassment and bullying happens on campus, our most vulnerable kids will continue to be harmed.”
District officials could not say Wednesday if the court decision would be appealed.
"It's not just a decision from the district level," said Peter Bang-Knudsen, the district's associate superintendent for administrative services.
The verdict is also being reviewed by the school district's insurer, the Washington Schools Risk Management Pool.
"They would be involved in that kind of decision as well," Bang-Knudsen said.