Brunswick’s school superintendent and the head of the Maine Human Rights Commission remain hopeful that a bullying case can be resolved out of court despite the commission’s decision last week to pursue a discrimination lawsuit against the school system.

Superintendent Paul Perzanoski disagrees with the commission’s decision and disputes some facts in the investigator’s report on the alleged bullying of a Brunswick Junior High School student over 2½ years. But Perzanoski said “everything is still open to discussion” before the case heads to court.

However, if the case is litigated it could help set legal precedent in Maine when it comes to bullies targeting students based on their perceived sexual orientation.

“There just aren’t a lot of decisions out there about school bullying, the Maine Human Rights Act and what is protected,” said Amy Sneirson, executive director of the Maine Human Rights Commission.

The commission voted 3-1 on Dec. 15 to support suing the Brunswick School Department based on a commission investigator’s finding that Brunswick Junior High did not do enough to address the alleged bullying. The decision to pursue a legal case comes after commission staff, the victim’s family and Brunswick schools were unable to reach a “conciliation agreement” in the months since the commission found reasonable grounds of discrimination against the student.

The mother of the unnamed student filed a formal complaint in July 2012 accusing the school department of discrimination by failing to do more to address the verbal and physical harassment of her son between 2010 and 2012. The boy claimed that other students taunted or abused him about his appearance, his lack of athletic ability, and especially because they perceived him to be gay. He also later said he was sexually assaulted at least three times, but after separate investigations, both the school department and Brunswick police did not find credible evidence of the allegations.

School teachers and administrators intervened after the specific incidents, talking to the alleged offenders and occasionally contacting the students’ parents. The school also took measures to prevent more incidents, including adopting anti-bullying policies, sponsoring “stand up to bullying” activities, and providing training to staff, and earned praise from the state for its anti-bullying program.

An investigation by staff at the rights commission acknowledged that school staff responded to the individual complaints, but said the school failed “to look at the overall picture of what was happening … (and) allowed a hostile education environment to persist for a lengthy period of time.”

“It had good policies in place. However, it did not do enough in this instance,” the report states. “Due to the number of incidents that occurred specifically to (the student), it is sensible to think that (Brunswick schools) should have honed in on that fact to see if there was a bigger issue instead of handling each incident on a case-by-case basis for more than 2½ years.”

The student eventually withdrew from school, and was briefly hospitalized and diagnosed with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder as a direct result of the bullying and harassment, the family’s attorney has said. The student eventually transferred to another school district. The family’s attorney, Courtney Beer with Pine Tree Legal Assistance, could not be reached for comment Monday.

Perzanoski disputed the commission’s finding and noted that Brunswick Junior High’s anti-bullying program was actually posted on the Maine Department of Education’s website as a potential model for other schools. The school’s principal, Walter Wallace, also gave a presentation on the bullying prevention and response programs to other educators around the state.

“We certainly disagree with the decision,” Perzanoski said. “We have disagreed with the decision from the beginning, and that (position) is based on some inaccuracies in the report that have not been addressed and the fact that we have policies and procedures that are in very good standing with the state of Maine.” He declined to elaborate on the claim that the investigator’s report contained inaccuracies or to discuss the case.

Perzanoski indicated that the department is willing to work out an agreement with the commission and the former student’s family, saying “everything is still open to discussion.” In the meantime, the department will continue to work on its bullying policies and staff training.

“We take this very seriously,” he said.

The commission has until Jan. 12 to file the lawsuit against the school department in either state or federal court, as part of the formal timetable spelled out in Maine law. Sneirson, of the rights commission, said school bullying complaints are becoming more common, but this is the first bullying case that the commission has elected to take to court. “I hope we can find a way to work it out” without the court, she said.

Because of limited staff resources, the commission typically chooses to pursue litigation in three or four of the 35 to 40 cases in which the commission finds reasonable grounds of discrimination. The complainants have the right to bring suit themselves in the other cases, bolstered by the commission’s findings.

Sneirson said the law books are filled with cases on employment discrimination decisions, but not on bullying-related discrimination involving a student’s sexual orientation.

“We are interested in this case because it is a really important issue,” she said. “The fact is, there haven’t been a lot of cases.”

If the case does go to court, school departments around the state will likely be watching closely.

But Richard Durost, executive director of the Maine Principals’ Association, said schools throughout the state are already devoting significant time and resources to stopping bullying, responding to complaints and preventing future incidents. So Durost doubted any dramatic changes would result from a court case in the Brunswick complaint because schools are already heavily focused on the issue.

“It’s my understanding, based on what I am hearing from administrators, that the situation around bullying is getting better in terms of a decrease in cases,” Durost said. “And what I’m hearing … is that peer pressure from students (against bullying) turns out to be the key factor.”