September 23, 2004
A mother who is suing the Scottsdale Unified School District has become part of a national trend: Parents who take schools to court when their children are bullied on campus.
"We hear from a number of parents who are frustrated and feel they are not getting the response that they would like from the school districts," said Jim Ferguson, director of the National Crime Victim Bar Association in Washington, D.C. "Parents who call us have reached the end of their rope."
That was the case for the mother of a former special education student at Coronado High School. In a civil complaint against the Scottsdale district, she alleged that a student intentionally injured her son during a physical education class — despite previous complaints to the school about the same student.
The suit alleges that a freshman physical education teacher — who had been warned about the bullying accusations months earlier — placed the two students on opposite teams during a game of "touch" football in April 2003. The suit says the student threw a football at the victim’s head and later tackled the victim and broke his arm.
The lawsuit is one of many nationwide in which parents have blamed schools for not doing enough to control bullying.
Ferguson said a 1999 U.S. Supreme Court ruling opened the door for victim lawsuits against the government, and school districts have seen their share of these complaints from parents upset about bullying.
"Based on the calls that we receive, there definitely has been an increase in this type of case in the past couple of years," he said.
Just last month in Phoenix, the parents of two former students at Maxine O. Bush Elementary School filed a notice of claim against the Roosevelt Elementary School District alleging that school officials failed to intervene properly to stop bullying there.
A family in Tonganoxie, Kan., filed a similar lawsuit in May.
Earlier this year, school districts in Anchorage, Alaska, and Eugene, Ore., settled out of court with families that accused them of doing too little to stop bullying. In the Alaska case, a family said their 14-year-old son tried to kill himself and was left permanently brain- damaged because of relentless bullying that the school knew about but failed to stop.
"Schools that aren’t doing something about this are just setting themselves up to be sued," said Xavier Morales, associate director of the Arizona Prevention Resource Center.
Morales’ organization teamed with the governor’s office and the Men’s Antiviolence Network in 2003 to implement the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program at 15 schools in Arizona. The program was developed 20 years ago in Europe and has a proven track record of helping both the victims and the perpetrators of bullying, Morales said.
"Bullying is a problem of adults," Morales said. "Adults are not contro lling the situation."
The Scottsdale suit says the special education student reported the bullying accusations to his physical education teacher in January 2003, and to other school employees on other occasions. The suit alleges that each time the special education student spoke up, the attacks intensified in retaliation.
On the advice of her attorney, the mother who filed the suit has declined to discuss the case with the media.
The Scottsdale district said in its response filed in Maricopa County Superior Court that the teacher did not have "any knowledge of any bad relations" between the two students that would have warranted special precautions.
The response says students take risks when they participate in any sporting activity, and the supervised activity at Coronado was a "normal, friendly game of football of the type engaged in by thousands of students in thousands of schools across the United States."
Attorney Jim Kloss, who is defending the Scottsdale district in the case, said one result of such a lawsuit might be an increased number of schools afraid to include activities such as flag football in their physical education classes.
He said the lawsuit is an example of a family too anxious to involve attorneys in a problem before seeking solutions at the school. "They are literally taking money out of the classroom to benefit their own interests," Kloss said.
District spokesman Tom Herrmann said his district has brought bullying prevention experts to its campuses and works to educate students and staff on the issue.
"It’s something that we take very seriously, and we have addressed it with our students," he said.
No trial date has been set in the case, which was filed in April, about one year after the injury occurred.