YAKIMA, Wash. - Former Mount Adams School District officials are in trial this week over allegations they ignored bullying against two brothers at Harrah Elementary School: one a fifth-grader facing sexual harassment and physical assault, and the other a fourth-grader facing a death threat.
In a lawsuit against the district, the boys’ parents say school officials knew about the escalating abuse, failed to inform the boys’ legal guardians about it, took no action to protect the boys and instead looked the other way while giving their children’s bullies awards.
“Schools are supposed to be safe havens where children can thrive,” the parents said in the lawsuit. “Instead, their experience taught them that schools are dangerous places where they can be harmed.”
The parents are suing the district, former superintendent Henry Strom and former Harrah Elementary School principal John Hannah — all of whom have denied any liability for what happened to the boys, as well as the allegations against them.
The brothers — J.R. and S.R. — attended Harrah Elementary School from 2013 to 2014, during which time their parents worked as substitute teachers at the school.
When J.R. was in fifth grade, he was repeatedly a target of bullies. In November 2013, three students attacked him, pushing him into a fence and a tree, then throwing him to the ground where he was hit and kicked, the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit says school officials were aware of the assault, but didn’t tell J.R.’s parents or intervene to help him, a pattern the parents say continued as the assaults became more aggressive.
In January 2014, the bullies began making “sexualized remarks” about J.R.; in March 2014, J.R. was punched in the face, according to the lawsuit. Again, the parents say there was no notification made and no action taken to help their child.
The parents became, “fed up with the ongoing harassment of their son” and met with Hannah, the principal at the time, but nothing happened, according to the lawsuit.
“Without any discipline or repercussions, the bullies escalated their harassment against J.R.,” the lawsuit said. “They threw balls at his face three times in one day, again requiring medical care.”
As it escalated, parents again sought a meeting with the school administration, this time with former vice principal Robert Lee Everts, who allegedly said he “didn’t have time” to deal with the situation and would have someone look into it, the lawsuit said.
A week after that meeting, the parents say the bullies called J.R. names and physically assaulted him again. The parents met with Everts a second time, whose solution was allegedly to have the bullies stay away from J.R. for a day.
“Adding insult to injury, the bully that had tormented J.R. all year was given, before the entire school, the Student of the Month award and the Principal’s Award,” the lawsuit said. “It was devastating for J.R. to see his tormenter be rewarded rather than disciplined.”
When S.R. was in the fourth grade, his parents say he received a death threat from another student.
In the lawsuit, the parents say the school didn’t report the threat to police, notify his parents, search the school for a weapon, interview the student who made the threat, secure a safe place for S.R. or investigate the threat at all.
The parents heard about the death threat while substitute teaching at the school and contacted Everts, who allegedly didn’t want to take action because he said it would, “spoil my Friday and my weekend,” according to the lawsuit.
Upon pressure from the parents, the school took some action — actions the parents say went on to further traumatize S.R.
Rather than separating the the student who threatened to kill S.R. from him, the school “put the two together in a small room behind closed doors ‘to work it out,’” before being sent back to class together, the lawsuit said.
The parents again went to Everts, who said he wasn’t aware of what happened; Everts later approached S.R.’s father to tell him the student who threatened S.R. was “going through family issues at home,” according to the lawsuit.
With no investigation, no repercussions and the school’s “deliberate indifference,” the parents say the student went on to escalate the situation and confronted S.R. at recess.
“S.R. was terrified knowing that this student, who had threatened to kill him, was allowed to freely access him,” the lawsuit said. “He was shocked and horrified to realize the [school was] not going to protect him.”
The parents say Strom, the former superintendent admitted the situation was handled inappropriately, blamed Everts and said the school would take action, before telling the parents to direct any further questions back to Hannah, according to the lawsuit.
At a meeting several days later, Hannah allegedly told the parents he didn’t know what was going on, but upon the parents’ explanation, agreed the situation was handled inappropriately and promised to take action, the lawsuit said.
The parents say the school promised to follow up with them and come up with a safety plan for S.R., but never did. Everts allegedly told them he was unaware such a promise had been made.
In a response to the lawsuit, the school said they never discussed making a safety plan for the boy with the parents. In June 2014, the parents say the student who had threatened to kill S.R. received the Principal’s Award in front of the entire school.
The parents say they had to pull the boys from school because school officials would not take action to ensure their children's safety.
In the lawsuit, the parents argued that the school, “created a dangerous school environment, where aggressive students were allowed to bully, harass, intimidate and assault other students without penalty or consequence.”
The parents went on to say that the unsafe environment unreasonably interfered with the boys’ ability to get an education.
They are asking the court to award financial damages to J.R. and S.R. for, “emotional distress, anxiety, mental anguish, humiliation, embarrassment, loss of education and other general damages,” legal fees and anything else the court thinks is appropriate.
The trial began Monday in Yakima County Superior Court and is expected to last about eight days.
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