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$150K settlement in bullying suit


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COLUMBUS, Ind. — A former Columbus North High School student who accused a classmate of bullying her — and alleged that the school district failed to stop the behavior — has agreed to a $150,000 settlement of the case.

In a lawsuit filed in March 2010, Margaret Sobieralski alleged that former classmate Daniel Herrick had spread sexually explicit rumors about her and that administrators in the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. had failed to stop the harassment. The case originally was filed in Bartholomew County Circuit Court but later was transferred to a federal court in Indianapolis.

A settlement was reached on Oct. 19 in which the school corporation’s insurer agreed to pay $100,000, and the Herrick family’s insurer agreed to pay $50,000. Both parties denied all wrongdoing.

 

“There has not been any finding of fault against BCSC,” wrote Marsha Volk Bugalla, an attorney for the school district’s insurer, Indiana Insurance, in an email. “The facts developed during the investigation of this lawsuit confirmed that the allegations were not supported by the evidence, and the staff of BCSC did at all times act in the best interest of this student and all students. Had this matter proceeded to trial, BCSC is confident that a jury would have found in its favor.”

Cheryl Sobieralski, Margaret’s mother, said her daughter was bullied and intimidated by Herrick throughout the 2008-09 school year and the following summer during band camp.

By the next school year, Herrick had graduated, but Sobieralski said some adults at the school retaliated against her daughter because of the case, with the result that Margaret lost a leadership role and was ostracized by leaders in the school’s band.

“We had meetings with the school, sent letters to every member of the school board and the superintendent, and the school simply would not do anything about it,” Sobieralski said. “We didn’t know what to do.”

She said her daughter — who previously had enjoyed school and earned good grades and never had been in trouble — became depressed, began having panic attacks and talked about suicide.

“I know kids need to learn to be tough, but there’s a point when it goes beyond that,” Sobieralski said. “It’s the adults’ responsibility to intervene and ensure safety for the children in a school.”

School Superintendent John Quick said a district review of the case “found that folks acted in an appropriate manner.”

District policy prohibits bullying and calls for school personnel to investigate all such reports, adding that “counseling, corrective discipline and/or referral to law enforcement will be used to change the behavior of the perpetrator. This includes appropriate intervention(s), restoration of a positive climate and support for victims and others impacted by the violation.”

Quick said the district was one of the first in the state to train all administrators in bullying prevention. BCSC also has an active anti-bullying task force, and the topic is usually a hot one at monthly meetings of principals and deans, Quick said.

“I do think that we have good policies and procedures in place, and our folks do follow those,” he said. “We don’t ignore (bullying). We follow up, and we investigate. We try to take appropriate action.”

Herrick’s lawyer, Joseph D. O’Connor, said by email that his client “vigorously denied the allegations.

“Purely to avoid the expense of a federal jury trial, my clients’ insurer agreed to pay a settlement, which specifically stated that our clients denied any wrongdoing,” he wrote.

Sobieralski’s lawyer, Michael Thomasson, said he had advised the Sobieralskis that he thought they would prevail at a jury trial and stood to collect more than the $150,000 settlement.

Cheryl Sobieralski said she had never wanted to file a lawsuit and was relieved simply to resolve the matter. She said her daughter, who is now 20 and in college, is recovering and “doing great,” although she still receives therapy to overcome the emotional damage caused by bullying.

“We never went into this for a monetary reason. It was always to make a point and to try to change people’s reaction to bullying in BCSC in the future,” she said.

“I don’t encourage people to file lawsuits in cases like this. Work with the school. But for other parents, don’t let the bullying escalate. Make the school do something, but if they don’t I don’t know what other choice you have except legal action.”

Anti-bullying policy

The Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp.’s policy includes these provisions:

Bullying by a student or groups of students against another student with the intent to harass, ridicule, humiliate, intimidate or harm through overt, repeated acts or gestures, including verbal or written communications and/or physical acts or any other similar behavior is prohibited.

Parents or students who suspect that repeated acts of bullying are taking place should report the matter to the school principal. School personnel will investigate all reports of bullying.

Counseling, corrective discipline and/or referral to law enforcement will be used to change the behavior of the perpetrator. This includes appropriate intervention(s), restoration of a positive climate and support for victims and others impacted by the violation.

Educational outreach and training will be provided to school personnel, parents and students concerning the identification, prevention and intervention in bullying.

All schools in the corporation are encouraged to engage students, staff and parents in meaningful discussions about the negative aspects of bullying.

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