The family of a special-education middle school student who was repeatedly bullied in 2016 has sued the Palo Alto school district for its failure to protect him from harassment, alleging this resulted in severe academic and emotional harm.
The lawsuit, filed in Santa Clara County Superior Court in July, asks the district to pay undetermined damages related to "incessant" bullying at Jordan Middle School. The student's parents allege that he was bullied in person and online and physically assaulted, including by a student who brandished a knife at him.
The Weekly is not identifying the student or his parents to protect their privacy.
The lawsuit names as defendants the school district as well as specific administrators: former Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Scott Bowers; Juana Briones Elementary School Principal Tom Jacoubowsky, who was Jordan's interim principal at the time of the bullying; Jordan Dean of Students James Lubbe, then an assistant principal; then-Vice Principal Jim Cox, who now teaches at Terman Middle School; and Jane Miller, a special-education aide at Jordan.
The student's parents allege the administrators failed to properly investigate and respond to their reports of the harassment. The administrators' failure "substantially" disrupted the student's academic performance and caused "severe emotional distress," the lawsuit states.
Administrators did not open a Uniform Complaint Procedure (UCP) investigation when they first learned there were allegations of discrimination based on the child's learning disability, as is required by district policy.
The student's parents eventually decided to pull their son out of school, but he has since returned to the district, this time at Terman Middle School. His mother told the Weekly on Tuesday that he's again experiencing bullying there.
She said she decided to file the lawsuit after feeling unheard by the district for months. The prospect of reform and better treatment of children like hers, she said, is more important than any financial outcome.
"It's not the money, it's the respect that a person deserves," she said in an interview conducted in Spanish. "Money will not recover what happened."
Interim Superintendent Karen Hendricks declined to comment on the litigation.
After the family's case was disclosed in a Palo Alto Weekly story last fall, the school board said it planned to examine how staff are implementing policies and procedures for addressing complaints of discriminatory bullying. Questions again arose about the value of a two-tiered system, in which all complaints that do not involve legally protected classes (such as race, gender or disability) are to be handled at the schools, while those that do automatically start a district-level investigation.
The district's bullying policy has come up for discussion at the board's policy-review committee twice this fall, but no substantial changes have been made.
The lawsuit also alleges the district failed to reasonably supervise Miller, whom the parents said behaved inappropriately with their son over about three months, including grabbing his hands in an aggressive manner.
The district later determined that the aide's behavior was "unacceptable and unprofessional" but not discriminatory on the basis of race. (The investigation into this conduct was handled by Bowers, who concluded that because the aide had acted similarly toward other students who did not belong to a protected class, she was not discriminating against their son.)
The lawsuit alleges the district did not provide sufficient education for students or training for staff on how to prevent, report and respond to discriminatory conduct.
It also notes the district was already on notice for its failures in this area after a federal investigation into the bullying of a special-education Terman student years prior.
The family's attorney, Seth Rosenberg of San Francisco firm Emergent Law, said he has not determined the amount that will be sought from the district, as the family continues to incur expenses for care and treatment of their son. The lawsuit states it is in excess of $50,000.
Rosenberg said they hope the lawsuit represents an "incentive" for the district to change its behavior when it comes to responding to bullying.
"Hopefully when the school district has to compensate (the family), this will ... help them prevent themselves from doing this in the future to make sure that kids are safe," he said Tuesday.
A hearing date has been set for April, Rosenberg said.