Bullied student, experts testify in third day of city schools bullying trial
The older sister of the special needs student whose alleged bullying has landed the school system in court, closed out the third day of a jury trial in which a family is seeking $1.3 million in damages after they say school system principals ignored their complaints. You can read the recent coverage of the trial, which began last Thursday, here and here.
The parents, Shawna and Edmund Sullivan, are suing the system on behalf of their two kids who attended Hazelwood and Glenmount elementary schools in the 2008-2010 school years.
The 14-year-old girl, who the Sun is not naming, attended fifth grade at Hazelwood Elementary school in 2008-2009, where she said her belongings were urinated on, she and her brother were jumped by a group of students for their lunch money, and targeted for racial harassment. She also testified late Monday that after she found her brother unconscious outside of school one morning, the school's principal said "he was perfectly fine."
The girl described how she watched her brother, who suffers from disabilities stemming from a brain injury, slowly grow more and more depressed after he was repeatedly attacked by students.
"He became more depressed because he thought he did something bad to make everybody hate him," the girl told jurors. "I told him he didn't, and that the kids at that school were just really, really mean."
The school system's lawyer, Quinton Herbert, appeared to target the student's selective memory, asking her to recount incidents, witnesses, and actions--which he will later compare to the story she gave when she was questioned months ago.
Herbert also used similar tactics of punching holes in testimonies, including those of two expert witnesses called by Donna King, the Sullivans lawyer.
Herbert questioned the experts about the thoroughness of their investigations into the matters, the knowledge of their subject areas, and their familiarity with city school policies and procedures.
Inconsistencies, like the fact that two expert witnesses rendered an opinion months before they had reviewed all of the documents of the case, were pointed out, as was the fact that expert witnesses are paid by the plaintiffs.
Still, experts stuck by their assessments that the special needs student was neglected, ignored, and at the end of the day, he was emotionally damaged from the relentless bullying that his family said took place at the schools.
Arthur Horton, a veteran clinical, behavioral and neuro-psychologist who examined the bullied student, said that he believed the student should always have been in a "specialized setting for brain injured children," as opposed to a mainstream school, though the system recommended him for inclusion to the general ed population.
He told jurors of how the boy described being hit, choked, threatened, and believed that other students would try to 'kill him' and "break his arm."
Herbert pointed out that the boy apparently made similar allegations against his father. Horton said that he believed that abuse in the home had been ruled out by Johns Hopkins--where the boy was institutionalized for 10 days--and that it was normal for children under distress to exaggerate stories.
System attorneys also made a point of asking if aggressive and erratic behavior was normal behavior for brain-injured children.
Horton testified that he has treated "many, many brain-injured children, and they typically do not have this degree of disturbance...to the point that they have to be hospitalized." He added that it was "pretty straightforward that [ bullying at Hazelwood]" had caused the distress.
"I felt that the child became aggressive and felt bad about himself from being in that awful situation," Horton said. "The stress of that sort of thing would certainly disrupt anybody."
Another expert in Maryland's bullying policies took the stand early Monday, concluding that the administrators at Hazelwood and Glenmount failed to follow protocols that guide reports of bullying.
Veronica Altvater, a retired Baltimore county school counselor with more than 35 years in the city and county school systems combined, served as an expert witness on Maryland's bullying policies, but not without some grilling from Herbert.
Herbert pointed out throughout her testimony, which began Friday, that Altvater was not familiar with the city school system's policies--even though the state law supersedes--and that it appeared she had not reviewed all of the documentation associated with the case. He also harped on the fact that she had served in more than 8 Baltimore County cases as an expert witness.
He also suggested that Altvater could have gone into city schools to talk to principals and review student files--which she promptly responded would a.)not have been allowed, and b.) would have been highly inappropriate.
Altvater went on to offer a strong opinion on the state's bullying policies and the responsibility of administrators to report and address any bullying they witness or made aware of.
Alvater said she only saw a health suite "accident report" in the student's records from Glenmount--the only evidence that the special needs boy had been antagonized. The accident report noted that the boy had been "hit or tripped" and that the principal was speaking with a group of students.
"It's hard to see how being hit is an accident," Altvater said. "My opinion would be that [the principal] did not follow the regulations."
According to Altvater, there should have been a reporting form filed, and an investigation--though in cross-examination, it was revealed that she had not recently read Maryland's model policy on bullying--which she said was the same policy as 2008, when it was written. The policy outlines a series of potential actions that the principal could have taken, outside of suspension.
But Altvater also said that there was no indication that an investigation had ever taken place to render a fair sanction.
"The importance of the investigation would be certainly to get to the truth of the matter, and also to protect the victim...and have consequences for the bullies. In the absence of an investigation, she said, "the atmosphere would be one where students don't feel safe."
The trial continues Tuesday at 9 a.m.