Crime - Sacto 911

Bullying lawsuit filed against San Juan Unified

Nonie Reyes-Small, 16, president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness club signed a pledge to stand up against bullying before she gave out yellow ribbons for suicide prevention before a balloon release for Ronin Shimizu on Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2014 at Folsom High School in Folsom, Calif. Shimizu,12, committed suicide Dec. 3rd.
Nonie Reyes-Small, 16, president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness club signed a pledge to stand up against bullying before she gave out yellow ribbons for suicide prevention before a balloon release for Ronin Shimizu on Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2014 at Folsom High School in Folsom, Calif. Shimizu,12, committed suicide Dec. 3rd. rbyer@sacbee.com

The family of a former San Juan Unified student has sued the school district and its top officials alleging that repeated bullying and harassment over several years culminated in a sexual assault on their special-needs son in the boys locker room at Rio Americano High School.

The boy, now 16 and no longer enrolled in the district, was in ninth grade at the time of the March 2013 attack, in which one boy allegedly put his thumb in the victim’s anus as other students watched, according to the lawsuit. The perpetrator was taken into custody a day later and prosecuted through the juvenile justice system, according to Sacramento lawyer Joseph George, co-counsel in the lawsuit.

The public focus on the problem of bullying has intensified since the Dec. 3 suicide of Ronin Shimizu, 12, of Folsom. Ronin’s family and friends say the seventh-grader was the target of bullying in the Folsom Cordova Unified School District starting in his elementary years. Last week, Folsom Cordova Superintendent Deborah Bettencourt called for a tougher, earlier response to the problem and sought to create a district-community task force to drive the effort.

The lawsuit against San Juan was filed in April in Sacramento Superior Court and amended early this month. It identifies the teenage plaintiff only as John PM Doe in an effort to protect his privacy. It lists his mother as Doris Doe.

“When I read that (Ronin’s story), it broke my heart,” the mother said in a telephone interview. “It could have been my son. I’ve had so many worries of that (happening).” She said she and her son have left the area to stay with her husband while he works out of the country.

Her son tried to return to the school after the attack but could not continue, his mother said. She quoted him as saying, “I can’t do it anymore. Everyone is pointing at me, laughing at me.”

She said her son has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. “He can’t be around a large group of people,” she said.

He is slower than many other students in learning, comprehension and social skills, she said, adding that she had encouraged him over the years not to lash out at people in a way that would intensify conflict.

San Juan school district officials named as individual defendants in the complaint declined to comment because of ongoing litigation, said district spokesman Trent Allen. The defendants named in the lawsuit include Superintendent Kent Kern and other top officials in his office and at Rio Americano High School.

The legal complaint contends the district officials had a duty to protect the boy from harassment and bullying and that the failure to do so caused him humiliation, shame, and emotional and physical distress.

Plaintiffs’ co-counsel George said it’s often difficult for families to deal with a child being victimized.

“Bullying is every parent’s worry,” he said. “It’s exacerbated for the parents of special-needs kids. One reason is they are easy marks. Another is that they are less adept at taking care of themselves.”

Court documents say the boy was bullied for many years. “The tragedy of his experience was the school district was put on notice of his being a target from middle school and then into high school at Rio, and the sexual assault still, nevertheless, happened,” George said.

The lawsuit says the school did not notify the boy’s mother until the day after the alleged assault.

“I got a phone call the day before Easter break (from a Rio Americano vice principal),” the mother said. “She told me my son was sexually assaulted in the P.E. locker room but said, ‘He’s safe now.’

“I said, ‘When did this happen?

“She said, ‘Yesterday.’ ”

Doe said the vice principal explained the delay by telling her, “We wanted to get the facts.” But, Doe added, the official “couldn’t tell me anything other than the other person was a minor.”

Doe’s son was identified as a special-education student while attending Coyle Avenue Elementary, the lawsuit said. That designation meant he was entitled to individual assistance by support staff.

Assaults, abuse and other misconduct began when he was 12 at Starr King K-8, according to the lawsuit.

At Starr King, toward the end of his sixth-grade year, three eighth-graders pushed him to the floor in the bathroom, held him down and beat him, the lawsuit said.

When he entered ninth grade at Rio Americano about two years later, the lawsuit said, the bullying started early in the school year and occurred on a daily basis, with students calling him names, including a gay slur.

By this time, his special educational services were focused primarily on academic support. For a fifth of each day, including his physical education classes, he was part of the general education curriculum.

In second period his freshman year, he attended a physical education class with both ninth- and tenth-grade students. During that time, the lawsuit said, there was no instructional aide assigned to the youth, even though his individualized education program called for close supervision.

Co-counsel Robert Wilson, a Sacramento lawyer who along with George is handling the plaintiff’s lawsuit, argues that the school district had a duty to protect the boy from harm.

“We’re dealing with the most vulnerable members of our community, special-needs students, and because of that, courts will address this differently for those students,” Wilson said.

A new state anti-bullying statute, known as Seth’s Law, took effect on July 1, 2012. It expanded schools’ duty to protect students who are bullied and intimidated. The law is named after a 13-year-old California student who committed suicide after being bullied at school.

Doris Doe said she is hoping for a change in perceptions for special-needs children, who she said are often seen as emotionally disturbed.

“That’s how they label them,” she said. And she called for a change: “Label them as human beings.”

Call The Bee’s Loretta Kalb, (916) 321-1073. Follow her on Twitter @LorettaSacBee.

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