Right To Sue Over Bullying Makes (Very) Small Step Forward – Part 2 of 3

In my previous post on this subject (apologies that I haven’t followed it up earlier,) I discussed the ongoing tragedy of bullying in schools, and of how the most recent victim was a young girl in South Hadley by the name of Phoebe Prince, who committed suicide after repeated abuse by a group of girls at South Hadley High School. I also discussed how, up until perhaps now, there has been almost no statutory vehicle in Massachusetts to attach civil liability to school administrators or personnel – public or private – for injuries and harm done to children bullied at school. A recent Massachusetts Superior Court decision may – just may – have opened the door to legal changes much needed in this area of civil justice.

The case, Parsons, et. al., vs. Town of Tewksbury, et. al., involved a Tewksbury Middle School student and his parents who sued the Town of Tewksbury and school personnel for negligence, and other counts, in not intervening to protect this student from repeated bullying by other classmates at the school. The case reveals a shocking level of violence inflicted against the young student, and even more shocking negligence in the form of inaction by school personnel to intervene and protect this young boy from savage abuse at the hands of other students. The facts are truly horrific. I trust that my readers are familiar with the term “Dumbing Down”, to describe how people are in general nowhere near as well educated in this country as they were in decades past (and if anyone has any doubts about that, just watch one of Jay Leno’s famous “Jay Walking” pieces, where he asks average Americans questions about the most basic subjects, and 99% don’t have a clue as to the answers.) While stories like this case from Tewksbury must be told, I believe that in the process they can create a “Numbing Down” in people: The effect is that, horrific as a story like this is, it fails to provoke outrage or shock in people. The reason: Violence and indifference is so increasingly widespread in our culture. Too many people read of horrific stories like this, and just turn the page. I hope that won’t happen here. I wish to also say that, while some lawyers see hope in this decision, as a Boston injury attorney, I find this decision disappointingly weak. It’s my legal opinion that this judge should have found liability against the town and the school in this case (which he did not,) and that he should have issued much stronger language.

The case begins in April 2006 with young Nicholas Parsons, a student at Tewksbury’s Wynn Middle School, who was being repeatedly assaulted and battered by a group of other students at this school. Young Parsons reportedly had fallen out of friendship with a group of male students who made it a practice of harassing and threatening weaker students. Parsons told the school guidance counselor, Adam Colantuoni (who was also named as one of the defendants in the suit,) that these bullies had been harassing him repeatedly. The plaintiffs’ suit alleges that Colantuoni took little to no action to halt the assaults. Not long after Parsons had reported the problem to Colantuoni (the school’s “guidance counselor”,) the leader of the bullying group, a student by the name of Tyler Willette, ordered another student to slam Parsons’ head with a book. Not only did this other student carry out this order, he did it in the presence of a teacher, who sent the attacking student to the school’s “behavior management facilitator,” a man by the name of Robert Ware (who was also a named defendant in this suit.) By all credible accounts, Ware neglected to discipline the assaulting student, instead merely ordering the boys to apologize to each other. In the event you’re wondering where this gets worse, read on.

When Parsons’ mother learned of this inaction by Robert Ware to in any way discipline the student who attacked her son, she called the school to complain. The result: Shockingly, the school took no action to discipline this student or take any other measures to stem this violent behavior. During the school’s April vacation break, Tyler Willette (the bullying leader, who originally ordered another student to hit Parsons in the head with a book,) reportedly tried to start two fistfights with Parsons near his home, and then tried to provoke an additional fight upon their return to school. Initially, Parsons declined to fight, but after another teacher (this time, a gym teacher,) failed to discipline Willette for violently charging Parsons in a gym class, Parsons decided he had no choice but to take corrective and defensive action on his own. Reluctantly, he agreed to face Willette in a ‘scheduled’ fight, in the hope that doing so would stop future harassment. News of the fight, set to take place on April 26 2006 inside a boys’ bathroom, spread among the student body, as also did a threat by Willette, that he would break Parsons’ leg with a karate strike. It gets worse: Even though both Robert Ware and Adam Colantuoni were observed monitoring a boys’ bathroom on the day of the fight, (an activity that neither man typically engaged in, and which was evidence that both men knew this fight was going to take place,) neither man reportedly undertook any effort to intervene in the fight. If this inaction doesn’t shock the conscience, it gets worse still: Both boys’ English teacher, after learning from other students that the two boys were absent from class because of the fight taking place during that class period, did nothing to alert school administrators. At this point in this situation, that now numbered four (4) adult school administrators – all “trained professionals” receiving salaries and benefits – who did absolutely nothing to stop this escalating cycle of violence.

Yes, by all credible accounts, what you’re reading is all true.

In the boys’ bathroom, Willette attacked Parsons, shoving him, then kicking him in the legs with special katate moves as he had threatened to do, in the process fracturing Parsons’ femur. Then, as Parsons lay on the floor with a broken leg, Willette punched him in the head twice. With Parsons crying out in pain, in a show of ‘mercy’, Willette and a friend then reportedly took Parsons to the school nurse. When Robert Ware (the school’s “behavior management facilitator”, if you can believe that,) arrived at the nurse’s office, Parsons, who had been crying, was unable to lift his swollen leg below the knee. Ware’s response (as recounted in the plaintiff’s complaint): He swore at young Parsons, telling him to “walk it off” and to follow him out of the nurse’s office. The nurse intervened, demanding that Ware be placed in a wheelchair, and she summoned an ambulance to transport Parsons immediately to the hospital.

Willette’s punishment for this aggravated assault and battery? Nothing but a brief suspension – a slap on the wrist. Robert Ware’s and Adam Colantuoni’s punishment for their shocking negligence and reckless indifference to this situation? Nothing of any consequence. They’re still on the job, collecting their salaries. Nicholas Parsons? He suffered multiple surgeries and hospital stays as the result of his injuries, and suffered enormous emotional trauma. He’ll carry those injuries the rest of his life.

Parsons and his parents subsequently sued the town, Ware and Colantuoni in Superior Court for negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress and violations of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.

I’ll discuss the legal analysis and result that the court arrived at, and why I think it’s more of a disappointment than anything else, in my next post. In the meantime, let your anger and disgust over this story fuel you to put your school administrators – public and private – on notice that you’re not going to tolerate this reckless disregard for the safety of students, in your community. Otherwise, I have some news for you: It won’t stop.