Archive for Saturday, December 24, 2005

Student reaches $440,000 settlement in sex harassment case

December 24, 2005

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The Tonganoxie school district's insurance company ended a 19-month legal battle, agreeing to pay $440,000 to a former student who sued after persistent bullying and harassment from classmates prompted him to drop out of school.

"That's it," said Steve Pigg, a Topeka attorney representing the school district. "It closes the matter. There are no contingencies I can think of."

The former student's attorney said the effects of the case would be far-reaching.

In the settlement, reached on Thursday, attorneys for the school district and former student Dylan Theno agreed to end a federal lawsuit filed in May 2004. Theno, who said he was the target of sexual discrimination at the hands of other students, won a jury award in August totaling $250,000. And just a few days ago, the judge in the case ordered the district to pay nearly $270,000 in attorneys' fees.

The jury award was under appeal to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver at the time of the settlement. Pigg said the agreement was reached with the help of a federal mediator from the Denver court.

The lawsuit centered on Theno's claim that he was bullied in junior high and high school, and that the pervasive bullying forced him to leave school in November of his junior year. He later earned a General Education Development diploma.

In May 2004, Theno sued the local school district in U.S. District Court, alleging other students spread sexual-based rumors about him and called him names such as "fag," "faggot," "queer," "flamer" and "masturbator" from his seventh-grade year until he quit school as a junior. Theno is not a homosexual.

During testimony last summer, witnesses for Theno said school officials were aware of the harassment but did little to curtail it. The suit also said the harassment denied Theno access to an education - a protection afforded under Title IX of the federal education act.

Sending a message

On Friday, Theno, now 18, said he felt vindicated. He hopes his case helps other students who are victims of bullying, and he hopes the case sends a message to other school districts.

"They need to take action," said Theno, now a student at Area Vocational Technical School in Kansas City, Kan. "They need to follow their code of conduct, their handbook. They need to do what is right."

It's not clear yet how much of the $440,000 will go to Theno and how much his attorney will receive.

"It's enough to change his life," Theno's attorney, Arthur Benson, of Kansas City, Mo., said. "And he deserves it."

Benson said the case already has attracted much attention.

"It's important that this is being paid by an insurance company that insures school districts," he said. "The combination of litigation and the free market will now cause insurance companies to bring scrutiny to the anti-harassment policies of all the school districts they insure. That's really the key way these things get their effectiveness spread. This is a big loss for both the school district and the insurance company."

The case already has been reported in educational journals, Benson said.

"I'm sure school administrators are paying attention to it nationwide," he said. "It's the first jury verdict anywhere under Title IX in a student gay-baiting case."

Tonganoxie school Supt. Richard Erickson, reached on vacation Friday, said he was unaware the suit had settled.

"It was up to the insurance company," Erickson said. "It was their money. : I was disappointed we lost the judgment in the court case, obviously. It doesn't surprise me the insurance company is settling because they're the one paying the bill."

Relief and hopes

The completion of the case proved to be an early Christmas present for the Theno family, Dylan Theno's father said.

But he added: "It never really was about the money. It was about doing what was right. : You have to stand up for what's right. We not only stood up for Dylan, we stood up for the rest of the kids. This has changed other schools in the area."

Erickson didn't respond directly when asked whether this lawsuit prompted changes in school district practices and procedures.

"We're constantly reviewing our policies and trying to update our policies as we need to, as recommended by the Kansas Association of School Boards, and we'll continue to do that," he said.

This case, heard by U.S. District Judge John Lungstrum, could become a springboard in other bullying lawsuits, Pigg said.

"They don't have to agree he has correctly analyzed the law," Pigg said of other judges. "It is a persuasive authority, and it's out there. If you're on the other side of the aisle in this kind of case, you'd certainly use it."

Pigg said he hoped it didn't have a negative impact on the Tonganoxie school district.

"All of the people I met there, I thought, were fine people trying their hardest to do a good job," he said.

Tonganoxie Mirror editor Caroline Trowbridge can be reached at (913) 845-2222.

Comments

Bradley Kemp 9 years, 7 months ago

"...if things weren't so pathetically PC these days the kid being 'harrassed' would have popped his 'harassers' in the eye a couple of times and they woud have gotten the idea."

I take it from your use of quotation marks that you don't think this kid was genuinely harassed. So, what do you think? That he was teased? Taunted? Joshed with?

And you think that physical violence is a suitable response to a little joshing?

ksmattfish 9 years, 7 months ago

"Whoever said that violence solves nothing has never seen it work!"

As the kid is laughing all the way to the bank with his almost-half-a-million dollars he may be experiencing a similar sense of satifaction as you did. Many years from now he will write in readers comments...

"Whoever said that litigation solves nothing has never seen it work!"

jranderson 9 years, 7 months ago

The problem is that this harrassment and cruelty goes on everyday to many kids, who act out (because no one will stand up for them) and get punished...OR do very regrettable things. How can we change this? How can we change our children? Why do kids think these actions are justifiable? Who are they imitating? These issues don't just result in lawsuits, but in violence and death. I think it is about time to make a big deal out of it.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 9 years, 7 months ago

Your posts this morning 'splain a lot, Marion. Still flailing away at all those "bullies," aren't you Don Quixote?

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 9 years, 7 months ago

"Besides, what I have posted is correct and should be taken at face value."

Well, you still think I'm Clark Coan, when I've already clarified that I'm really Clark Kent. I suspect that the rest of what you post is equally incorrect, which would put the face value at about that of a three-dollar bill (but not a Burroughs Real Dollar Bill)

bhanson 9 years, 7 months ago

Schools do have a responsibility to provide a safe learning environment for all students. This world has become to PC and Marion I do believe you are right, punching the bullies in the nose would have been great but it seems it could also have led to a serious but kicking for the homo-sexual student. It's unfortunate that the Tonganoxie School District has to pay this large sum of money. School officials can't see and prevent all things at all times, but I do believe they are partially responsible. The parents that raised these A-hole kids that terrorized this student for his lifestyle should be forced to pay a large portion of the damages that have been awarded

Hong_Kong_Phooey 9 years, 7 months ago

Marion:

For once I agree with you on something. People who say "violence never solves anything" are just plain wrong. Sometimes a swift kick in the arse is EXACTLY what the situation calls for. Unfortunately, too many kids these days have an overdeveloped sense of vengeance so, unlike when I was young, if a kid kicks some other kids arse then the kid who go whooped is likely to retaliate even more severely. I blame that on the parents (and society) for instilling selfish attitudes.

trinity 9 years, 7 months ago

there is just no easy answer to this one. well, there is, but unfortunately in today's world it won't work.

i'm leaning toward the side of letting kids work stuff out amongst themselves-i.e. good ol' butt kicking. HOWEVER, in today's world too many kids carry knives, guns, weapons...so the old days of fisticuffs on the playground to even scores and put an end to bullying generally wind up with somebody seriously hurt or dead.

it ain't mayberry any more-but damn i wish it was.

Steve_Rider 9 years, 7 months ago

The Lawrence Journal - World was among the first to inform the people of Kansas that their world famous school system was going to be forced to evolve a new and more intelligent design for dealing with harrassment.

Now the people of Kansas must choose between keeping the hate and paying higher insurance rates, or protecting the civil rights of people that Jeebus utterly hates and despises, except there is no Jeebus and they made up the hate part anyway.

Nothing in the reports we have seen indicate whether the original harrassment of the Kansas teen was the result of a faith-based initiative. We might be willing to hazard a guess about the religious background of those who tormented this young man. Just a guess.

We can't expect the Jeebus industry in the US to take a stand against the bullying of children thought to be gay, because homophobia is the biggest cash cow in the arsenal of those who profit from hatred and bile. They want to promote homophobia, not counter it, because it allows them to become the saviour of the innocent victims being targeted by the Gay Agenda.

But with the insurance industry facing the prospect of hundreds of anti-gay bullying lawsuits, and with payouts approaching a half a million dollars per case, you can be certain that many school districts around the US will be getting letters from their insurance companies that start out with something like "You know those queer kids?:"

America does not care if homophobia is wrong, or unjust, or cruel; but if homophobia begins to cost American corporations money, gay people just might achieve the right to exist.

snaptybean 9 years, 7 months ago

I know first-hand what bullying and harassment will do to a kid. My son was also the subject of similar harassment and accusations of potential violence in junior high to the point of wanting to take his own life, and even attempting so. After a seemingly unending due process hearing with our attorney, attorneys for the school district, and a hearing officer out of Colorado, my son was placed elsewhere for his four years of high school at the expense of the school district, my attorney fees were paid, and I was also reimbursed mileage to see my child during that period of time where he attended TWO HOURS AWAY. No, the settlement was not as monitarily beneficial as that of Mr. Theno, however, it did ultimately cost our school district in the six figures, and more importantly, it allowed my son the opportunity to complete high school in another district, start college his senior year, and hopefully become a responsible citizen in our society. The director at the time of the county's special education co-op did NOT have her contract renewed and was replaced, and there was no appeal filed by the school attorneys a second time. This obviously sent a message to OUR school district that bullying and harassment of ANYONE is wrong and should not be tolerated. Had my child reacted with violence toward the harassers, my child would have been suspended from school...If my child would have even THREATENED a harasser, another suspension. This was not a quick or rash decision to bring action against our school district. There were many meetings leading up to this with school administrators, teachers, and even a meeting with other students involved. Anyone who has ever gone through a stressful situation such as this will most likely agree that it is anything but fun for anyone.

shanefivedyes 9 years, 7 months ago

TO ALL PARENTS THAT HAVE KIDS BEING BULLIED/HARRASSED AT SCHOOL. TALK TO THE BULLIES PARENTS.IF MY SON/DAUGHTER WERE HARMING ANOTHER I WOULD WANT TO KNOW.

Steve_Rider 9 years, 7 months ago

Dear Snaptybean

I'm very happy that you stood up for your son, children need unconditional love from their parents more than anything else. My own son did commit suicide, not for lack of love from me thank goodness. I can honestly tell you that the pain will never end.

Children must be allowed to be themselves, and our society must learn tolerance. It certainly is deeply regrettable when financial penalties must be used to force our own government agencies to use ethical behavior.

Happy holidays

snaptybean 9 years, 7 months ago

Thank you Mr. Rider. It IS regrettable about financial penalties and I did not set out to cause our school district any financial hardship, unfortunately, those are often the only ones that school districts and insurance companies understand. I do not think anyone from the school district or insurance company would have offered to pay any burial expenses for my son, and my son's mental health was more important to me than someone's contract being renewed.

And to shanefivedyes, I, too, would want to know if MY child were harassing someone and would certainly take action. Unfortunately, not every parent is empathetic to the situation. They too often mimic the rationale of Marion and think the kid(s) being harassed just need to "suck it up" or use violence against their harassers. Twenty and thirty years ago most kids wouldn't even THINK about taking a gun or other weapon to school...today too many take guns and they're loaded, so I hardly think there is ever an excuse to teach our children to use violence as a means to an end. Peace.

snaptybean 9 years, 7 months ago

Very well said, and my apologies if I incorrectly paraphrased your previous comments.

You are correct in stating that parents do bear a responsibility, both the parents of the harassee and the harasser. I believe there are a large number of parents who would be mortified at the behavior of their children in different settings where the parents are not present, and I personally heard many parents make the ever-ignorant statement of "MY child would NEVER do/say that!" I also witnessed one brave parent of one of the harassers publicly address the behavior of their child in a way that left nothing to the imagination of where the parent stood or how they felt about the behavior of their child. Bottom line is, parents need to be open-minded enough to believe their little cherub COULD say or do something hurtful to someone else and their child should know that it will not be tolerated. Period. It comes down to he said/she said, and unfortunately, the kids being harassed are obviously not the most popular in school, and for some unknown reason, the popular kids are often thought to be more forthcoming with the truth than "unpopular" kids. (Where did THAT come from anyway??) Kindness and honesty start in the home and we can only hope that our children treat others in the world as we want to be treated, and if they choose not to, then they should understand there are consequences. Thank you, Marion, for clarifying your stance.

a_new_voice 9 years, 7 months ago

I'm just thankful I'm not in school these days. Times have changed and so have bullies. I'd say they are worse or maybe there are just more of them.

The school has a responsibility to protect the child. This is evident with the zero tolerance on violence. So if this young man had retaliated, he would have been suspended from school. Punished. What would that have taught him?

We've allowed more violence and profanity in t.v. Not to mention the sex!! It's everywhere. By not standing up ourselves to halt the progression, we have at times encouraged this.

I see parents doing less parenting all the time. I think it's easier for them to look the other way if they see at all.

To end my rambling, I'm glad he won. I'm glad he made some money. Maybe now things will change.

a_new_voice 9 years, 7 months ago

You are correct! Money is not the root of the problem nor does it affect the root of the problem. Those that picked on him are long gone. It will never affect them. It's too late for that.

What this "might" do is to help others in the future. If schools are held accountable and in this case they were, it will affect the change necessary.

Brown vs. the Board of Education taught us to stand up for injustices. This too was an injustice. I'm glad he had the courage to fight. Perhaps now he can put the past behind him and concentrate soley on his future.

Phantom 9 years, 7 months ago

I say you should all come spend some time in school. The favourite name to call someone is "gay." Ask 3/4 of the kids what "gay" means and they will snicker and giggle, but if pushed, will admit they really don't know. They are learning it from elsewhere, copying, know it upsets people, and so they use it constantly. The parents come in to "talk" and they are bandying about the same vocabulary. AND THE SCHOOLS ARE SUPPOSED TO FIX THIS? Ever hear of the "second person" syndrome? That is when the person who responds gets in trouble because they do so in a loud manner. The first person (THE INSTIGATOR) sometimes does not. So, while you deal with the second person coming unglued, the first person slinks off into the sunset unseen, unknown, unpunished. Then it just happens again.
There are policies at schools for these kinds of situations. When enforced, parents scream. When not enforced, parents scream. And it's ALWAYS the school's fault, the teacher's fault, whoever-NEVER the student or his parent's fault. And, when the situation is heard in the principal's office, neither one of the students is usually blameless.
I think that if someone is teasing you, you should respond. Who cares if you get in trouble? You DO send a message that says, "Don't mess with me!" So, my advice to a student would be to respond directly and LOUDLY to someone who is harassing them in ANY way. That allows people to know it is happening and will call attention to the fact that you are facing the bullying problem and let's grown-ups hear and see the issue and it can be handled properly without tattling. Parents: Teach your kids how to behave in public and to treat people with respect. Everybody expects respect, but no one wants to be the one to give it. This current crop of teenagers is the most prejudiced group of people I have ever seen. With all of the PC in the world, how is this happening? Believe me, it is NOT the schools' fault and it is NOT that of the educators. Perhaps you should look at the trite your kids watch on TV, in video games, in music videos, and LISTEN to the WORDS of the "songs." It's not pretty, people.
I'm sorry the insurance company caved in this case. Was probably cheaper to do so than to drag out the case to a different conclusion. How sad for the rest of us who will be affected by this decision.

I also post on

rivercitytalk.com>

and hope to hear from educators who will be as frustrated as I with this decision.

Kam_Fong_as_Chin_Ho 9 years, 7 months ago

The attorney's name is Pigg. Appropriate for a lawyer.

deedeer 8 years, 3 months ago

Man why is everyone getting of the subject. It is all about our kids. Forget about the money. This is a very serious issue. Kids ar committing bullycide everyday because the people that they look up to and are suppose to trust not only to educate them but protect them are turning their backs. Part of their education is that teachers teach these kids morals and ethical behavior. Yes it is the parents jobs first and foremost but unfortunetly alot of these kids don't have good parents. The teachers have to help them. Raise their self esteem and confidence level so they don't have to bring other kids down just to raise themselves up. Dylan deserved everything he got. He will never be able to graduate with his class. Over 100,000 kids drop out of school every year because of the bullying issue. 1/3 of those either become bullies themselves because they were ignored or they committ bullycide because they were ignored. People will think differently when it happens to their kids or grandkids. We as adults go to work everyday with the anti-bullying law in place to protect us why can't these kids go to their job everyday and have fun and learn without being tormented on a daily basis? We are as parents being bullied by the administration for standing up for our sons rights. They are realiating against us so much that I can't go in and have lunch with my son anymore and my husbands job is on the line because he has to take my son to school and pick him up now. because of false accustions from the principal. They refused to take the bullying against my son seriuosly until we had Dylans lawyer write a letter to the administration. Now the bullying toward my son has stopped but the bullying from the administration toward his parents will not go away. What kind of world are we living in. We have to stand up for our children and their future.

deedeer 8 years, 3 months ago

Teachers and administrators are the ones condoning such behavior from othe teachers and students. They are the ones that are grooming these children to be bullies or worse very destructive human beings, shooters. Childrens brains do not fully develop until 21-23 years of age so don't expect them to help themselves. These kids are crying and pleading for help. The bullied and the bullies. The cannot just come out and say "help me". They have other ways of getting an adults attention and when they are ignored by teachers and parents they are in fact condoning this type of behavior. We are talking about adults helping children not children helping themselves. They simply do not have the mantality or intellect to do so. Not even Dylan had it in himself to do so he was still just a kid. Shame on all the administrators who ignored his plea for help! I am so happy Dylan sued. But the problem is how to get the word out to other schools. My sons school just doesn't "get it" Mor parents and children have to empower themselves and stand up for their rights. School is not a prison like the administrators wnat it to be. They say they want parental involvement but only if you can bring more money into the school and keep your mouth shut about what you see and hear. Its all about money and I am glad that Dylan took it from them.

coolmom 8 years, 3 months ago

my youngest has been bullied by a group of kids since kindergarten. i have gone all the way up the chain and back down and have begged for a chance to talk to the kids parents etc. nothing worked as their rights had to be protected. now in third grade my son is suspended every couple of months when they harrass him to the point that he fights back and someone gets smacked. now he is considered the problem as the other kids are sneaky and operate as a group. this all started because of my son having a speech delay and the other kids calling him stupid etc. the main leader is a much smaller really troubled kid who other kids follow in order for them not to be turned on. my son has days where he hates school.

JoRight 8 years, 3 months ago

This sickens me to a point of no end. 50% of the time I might agree with Marion, and sadly, this might be one of them.

Kathy Getto 8 years, 3 months ago

Hear me now Oh thou bleak and unbearable world, Thou art base and debauched as can be; And a knight with his banners all bravely unfurled Now hurls down his gauntlet to thee! I am I, Don Quixote, The Lord of La Mancha, þ My destiny calls and I go, And the wild winds of fortune Will carry me onward, Oh whithersoever they blow. Whithersoever they blow, Onward to glory I go!

The knight errant

He was a nut, you know

Heh, heh

Thanks,

VOR

Linda Endicott 8 years, 3 months ago

Since the school and the district knew what was going on and did NOTHING to stop it, they SHOULD have to pay.

Teachers and administrators seeing this kind of stuff and ignoring it are part of the problem. If the bullying little darlings had to lose some of their privileges every time they were caught bullying (like not going to dances, or even the prom, or being suspended for one football game, having to stay after school and do extra homework, etc.), maybe they'd think twice about doing it again.

Suspending kids doesn't accomplish anything. Hell, half of them don't want to be there anyway, so getting three days off is a nice holiday.

Marion, it frequently DOES come down to kids retaliating. Unfortunately, in this day and age, it isn't always about throwing a punch or kicking someone or knocking them down. Sometimes, anymore, the retaliation is named Cho...

Not only that, but with laws being what they are anymore, if a kid gets bullied to no end and finally has had enough and pays them back with a knuckle sandwich, chances are the poor kid will end up being charged with battery and then will be in the court system, causing them even more problems.

You can't just smack someone anymore and get away with it...not unless you're an abusive mate, it seems...

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