Suit alleging sex assault at school thrown out

Mother sued officials, saying they failed to protect child from peer

Lawyer didn't respond to dismissal motion

Hampstead

February 16, 2005|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,SUN STAFF

A Carroll County Circuit Court judge has dismissed a $2 million lawsuit filed by a Hampstead mother who alleged that her son was sexually assaulted and harassed several times last year by another pupil at Spring Garden Elementary School.

The lawsuit - filed against the county commissioners, the school board and Spring Garden's acting assistant principal, Karen Rogers - contended that school officials failed to protect the fifth-grade boy from repeated sexual harassment despite having promised to prevent the boys from being alone together.

Last week, Circuit Judge J. Barry Hughes dismissed the case against the school board and Rogers. Hughes had dismissed the county commissioners from the case last month.

The lawsuit had accused school officials of "gross negligence," claiming they failed "to take proper and necessary steps to safeguard [the victim's] well-being, and protect him from repeated sexual assaults."

In asking the court to dismiss the case against the district and Rogers, school board attorney Edmund J. O'Meally argued that the circumstances of the case did not meet the threshold of gross negligence. He also asserted that neither the school board nor Rogers could be held responsible for an assault of a pupil by another pupil.

The mother's attorney, Bradley L. MacFee Sr., said yesterday that he was unaware that the case had been dismissed and declined to comment further.

According to Hughes' order dismissing the case, the court weighed the school district's argument as well as a lack of response from MacFee.

"This is an unusual situation" because the mother's attorney did not respond within the prescribed 15-day limit to the school attorney's motion to dismiss the case, O'Meally said. "The case is over."

According to the lawsuit, the boy reported to Rogers that another boy had touched him and made sexual comments to him on the school playground last spring. After meeting with the boy and his mother, Rogers assured them "that a plan would be implemented immediately to ensure [the two boys] would not be left alone together at any time in the future," the lawsuit alleged. However, four more similar incidents occurred on school grounds, according to the lawsuit.

Spring Garden in Hampstead enrolls about 600 pupils in kindergarten through fifth grade.

O'Meally said his motion to dismiss the case was founded on two points.

He maintained that as a general rule the school system could not be held responsible for harm one pupil might cause to another because the pupils are not employees or agents of the district.

For example, he said, if a student gets into a fight with another student, the school system isn't necessarily to blame for any injury to the students.

"We're not insurers of student safety," O'Meally said. "We do our best to protect the kids; that's paramount to the school system. ... But if a student allegedly harms another student, we're not automatically responsible for that."

O'Meally also argued that district employees have "absolute immunity" in negligence claims unless it can be proved that an employee's conduct amounts to gross negligence. He said an example would be a teacher abusing a student.

"With gross negligence, we're talking about malice, a deliberate indifference ... a conscious decision to totally disregard" the situation, he said. "That's not what we have here."

While the lawsuit accused school officials of gross negligence, O'Meally said it failed to back up that allegation.

The Child Abuse and Sexual Assault unit in Carroll County investigated the mother's allegations last year and closed the case without filing criminal charges, police said at the time the lawsuit was filed.

The Sun is not disclosing the mother's name to protect the boy's privacy.

When the lawsuit was filed in December, schools Superintendent Charles I. Ecker pointed to the CASA investigation that had determined the school system had met its obligation in responding to the mother's allegations.

"I'm happy [the lawsuit has] been dismissed," Ecker said yesterday. "Ms. Rogers ... acted in an appropriate and reasonable manner."

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