The Brunswick School District will pay $125,000 to settle a human rights lawsuit brought by a former student who said school officials did not do enough to prevent the bullying and abuse he experienced at Brunswick Junior High School for more than two years.

A male student and his mother anonymously sued the school district in July 2015, and the Maine Human Rights Commission also was a plaintiff in the case. The school district has denied it did anything wrong.

Although lawsuits like this one are rare, human rights advocates pointed to anti-bullying programs required in Brunswick as part of the settlement agreement as a model for other districts. In particular, they cited obligations to track bullying incidents electronically and form a gay-straight alliance at the junior high school.

“We hope that it will set an example for all the schools across the state,” said Zach Heiden, legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. “Schools do not need to wait until there is a terrible incident, and they do not need to wait until they are sued to implement these steps.”

There is little legal precedent on bullying-related discrimination involving a student’s sexual orientation, and the impact of this settlement agreement on future cases is unclear.

“I’m not sure if it sets a precedent for other cases other than the fact that the Maine Human Rights Act will be enforced to protect LGBTQ students, and that the commission believes strongly in requiring schools to do that,” said Amy Sneirson, executive director of the Maine Human Rights Commission.

The boy’s mother filed a complaint with the commission in 2012, alleging her son was taunted and abused by other students because of his appearance, lack of athletic ability and a perception that he was gay. Although staff members intervened in response to specific incidents, they did not recognize the pattern of bullying, the mother alleged, and she took her son out of the school in 2012.

STRONGER PROGRAMS REQUIRED

A 2014 human rights commission report found the school had good policies in place to prevent bullying, but did not do enough to help the student and allowed a hostile education environment to persist for a long period. Commissioners voted in 2014 to file a discrimination lawsuit against the school district.

The settlement was signed in October and filed last week in federal court. Brunswick schools agreed to pay $75,000 to the Johnson, Webbert and Young law firm to cover the family’s legal fees, and $50,000 to the former student for post-secondary education. Those payments will be covered by the district’s insurance company.

Brunswick Junior High School is required to implement stronger anti-bullying programs as part of the settlement. New programs include a centralized digital system to keep records of all bullying incidents, data monitoring for trends, and the formation of a gay-straight alliance at the school. The school also must continue annual, in-person staff training sessions to identify and stop bullying, with particular instruction on sexual stereotyping, and hold annual schoolwide assemblies to prevent and stop bullying.

“Overall, I think the entire case brings to the forefront some of the issues that are involved in public schools,” said Brunswick Superintendent Paul Perzanoski. “I think the community and the school as a whole because of it will be much more vigilant.”

Perzanoski said many of the requirements of the settlement agreement – such as staff training sessions and school assemblies to prevent bullying – already are in place in Brunswick.

“I think this demonstrates a recognition on the part of the Maine Human Rights Commission that we are already doing things right,” Perzanoski said.

The school district’s attorney in the case said paper records are currently used to track bullying incidents. The superintendent could not immediately provide data on the number of bullying complaints in Brunswick schools.

Perzanoski said digitizing records of bullying allegations “makes sense … so you can pull things up in a quicker manner and be able to look at incidents over time.”

GAY-STRAIGHT ALLIANCE BENEFITS

He also noted that Brunswick High School has a gay-straight alliance.

Matt Moonen, executive director of Equality Maine, said such organizations are uncommon for students in younger grades. Equality Maine is an advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Mainers that worked to help pass Maine’s anti-bullying law in 2012.

“When you have clubs like gay-straight-trans alliances, where LGBT youth can get together and meet and discuss actions they can take to improve the culture in the school, I think that has a positive impact on all students in the school,” Moonen said.

The executive director of the Maine Principals’ Association declined to comment on the case, and a call to the Maine School Management Association was not returned.

Sneirson, at the rights commission, called the digital records system and the formation of a gay-straight alliance at the junior high level “progressive.”

“The public interest remedies that Brunswick has agreed to here are steps that we hope can serve as a model for other districts, ways to get at bullying when schools have the right policies in place, but are looking to go further,” she said.