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Article of Interest - Bullying in Schools

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Bridges4Kids LogoTeasing suit moves to appeals court
by Mary Spicuzza, Seattle Times, July 2003
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The mother of an autistic boy says hearing him called "stupid" and "crazy" by his kindergarten classmates was only part of the problem, according to court records. And she says the relentless teasing is only part of the reason that his family has filed a lawsuit against the Federal Way School District. The boy's parents say the staff of a Federal Way elementary school failed to "intervene about the teasing situations" and that the district didn't protect the boy from ongoing harassment, court records say. Like his parents, the boy is identified by his initials in court documents.

"It could lead to larger problems down the road," the boy's mother says in court documents. "If one thing is OK for them to do to (M.L.), then everything else is OK for them to do to (M.L.)."

The problems began in September 2000, when the boy started kindergarten in Federal Way. His mother says the teasing began the first day of class, when she heard little boys making fun of M.L., who is developmentally disabled as well as autistic. She says she also heard children mimicking the "harpy sort of scream sound that he makes when he's trying to talk," according to court records.

His mother says she repeatedly reported teasing incidents, but that M.L.'s teacher and other staff members failed to address the problem, according to court records. She withdrew her son from school shortly after the first week because, she says, the teasing continued.

Jim Lobsenz, the family's lawyer, says the district failed to meet the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal law that ensures that all children with disabilities have free and appropriate public education complete with services designed to meet their needs available to them. He says the family was forced to remove M.L. from school to protect him.

The U.S. District Court in Seattle ruled in favor of the school district last year. But next month, the case will be back in court this time in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Christopher Hirst, lawyer for the Federal Way School District, says that both sides have filed their briefs and that he expects to be back in court in early August.

Hirst declined to discuss specifics of the case, because case files are sealed, but says the case is unlike any he's come across in his more than 25 years as a lawyer.

"I don't know of any case in which a court has determined that a school district has been found responsible for the teasing by peers of a disabled child," he said.

The court's decision potentially could change policies throughout the 9th Circuit, which includes Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, California, Montana, Hawaii, Arizona, Nevada, Montana, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.

The case also is returning to court at a time when schools throughout Washington are focused on anti-bullying policies. Legislation passed last year requires that Washington school districts have anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies in place by Aug. 1.

The Federal Way School District has had an anti-harassment policy since 1995 and updated it in March to comply with the new legislation, according to district spokeswoman Diane Turner.

Advocates for children and the disabled all seem to applaud the new anti-bullying laws. But they say policies alone can't solve the problem, whether it's teasing or other methods of intimidation.

"It's a first step. It's definitely a good first step," said Jean Carpenter, executive director of the Washington State Parent Teacher Association. "But bullying is still going to happen."

Carpenter says she doesn't know how "teasing" will be defined in the new policies, but she says school districts need to understand that bullying behavior can be physical, emotional or social.

But Lobsenz insists that the new policies have nothing to do with his case.

"It's not a policy issue," he said. "Just having the policy isn't enough. If you don't follow it, it's not going to work."

Mary Spicuzza: 206-464-3192 or mspicuzza@seattletimes.com  

   

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