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Franklin schools reach $85K settlement following bullying lawsuit by special needs student

Lawsuit filed in May 2019
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Posted at 7:37 AM, Jan 06, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-06 16:44:30-05

FRANKLIN — The Franklin Community School Corporation has reached an $85,000 settlement following a lawsuit filed by a student with special needs who accused the district of failing to stop bullying within its schools.

WRTV Investigates obtained the settlement amount through a public records request filed in November 2020 and filled by the district on Tuesday.

In May 2019, WRTV reported a Franklin teenager with special needs filed a 26-page federal lawsuit against the Franklin Community School Corporation, accusing them of failing to stop “severe and pervasive” bullying within its schools.

The teen, identified in the lawsuit as R.N., and her mother, R.T., said the problem got so bad the teen attempted suicide several times.

The 14-year-old receives special education services for autism, depression and ADHD, according to the lawsuit.

The family’s attorney, Tom Blessing, told WRTV Investigates they’re satisfied with the settlement which was paid by the district’s insurance provider.

“We’re glad the school district has finally been held accountable for letting a girl with autism be bullied to the point that she tried to take her own life — twice,” Blessing said. “It’s unfortunate that it took filing a lawsuit for that to happen and no amount of money can erase the suffering which she endured, but my client is in a new school and she’s doing great. Her parents are happy to put this behind them.”

R.N. was “the victim of a lengthy, severe and pervasive campaign of verbal and physical harassment by other students at school and on the school bus,” read the complaint, filed May 13, 2019 in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana.

“Bullying continues to be a serious problem in our schools, especially for kids with disabilities,” Blessing said. “It’s important for parents to report it — in writing — to school administrators every time it happens. I will keep fighting for those who can’t fight for themselves.”

R.N. was teased, kicked, punched, hit and told by fellow students “you should die” and “dig a hole and bury yourself,” court documents say.

The teen attempted suicide several times in 2017 and 2018, and told emergency personnel during one incident “they pushed me at school today.”

PREVIOUS | Mom settles lawsuit with school over allegations they abused special needs student

The lawsuit alleged when R.N.’s parents brought up concerns, school administrators and staff said R.N. was “overreacting” and suggested she attend half-days or become homeschooled.

Records show a school principal told R.N.’s parents it wasn’t bullying because they did not involve multiple incidents committed by the same student.

The state’s definition of bullying says bullying is repeated acts or gestures committed by a student or a group with the intent to harass, ridicule, humiliate, intimidate, or harm the other targeted student and create for the targeted student anobjectively hostile school environment.

In order to meet the definition of bullying the behavior must also place the student in reasonable fear of harm, have a substantially detrimental effect on the student’s physical or mental health, interfere with the student’s academic performance or interfere with the student’s ability to participate in school activities.

Blessing said the harassment against R.N. clearly met the definition of bullying.

As required by Indiana law, the Franklin Community School Corporation has a bullying policy in place.

On its website, the district says, “The School Board is committed to providing a safe, positive, productive, and nurturing educational environment for all of its students. The Board encourages the promotion of positive interpersonal relations between members of the school community.”

The lawsuit said the district failed to train employees on how to enforce the policy.

“One of the reasons that a hostile education environment is allowed to exist in defendant’s schools is because of their failure to properly train their employees on the implementation and enforcement of their own written policies, resulting in their employees’ ignorance of those policies,” read the complaint.

The lawsuit alleges the school district looked the other way, and failed to take appropriate measures to prevent or stop the bullying or discipline the perpetrators.

R.N. belongs to a protected class because of her disability, Blessing said.

The lawsuit alleged the Franklin Community School Corporation discriminated against her, violated the Americans With Disabilities Act, and was negligent for failing to intervene.

The lawsuit alleged R.N. is not alone.

Another student moved away from Franklin, but even after she moved, students continued to bully her on social media and she died by suicide in April 2018, the complaint said.

If you or your child is experiencing bullying, Blessing says the best thing you can do is to keep detailed records.

“You really need to document it so you can prove what you said to whom and when you said it, because in my experience, unless it’s in an email, you never told us,” Blessing said.

If the complaint involves a student receiving special education services, you can file a complaint with the Indiana Department of Education here.

You can also reach out to Indiana Disability Rights or by calling 800-622-4845.

WRTV Investigates hears your concerns about bullying, and we’ve been tracking the problem for years. We found most schools reported zero bullying incidents.

Our reporting resulted in a new state law that took effect in July 2018 that requires IDOE to send schools a reminder about their duty to report bullying incidents.

PREVIOUS | New state law tightens bullying reporting

The law also allows the Indiana Department of Education to audit schools to ensure they’re reporting bullying accurately, and also requires IDOE survey schools to find out what’s preventing them from reporting accurately.

The Franklin Community School Corporation reported 26 bullying incidents during the 2017-2018 school year, state records show, and 14 bullying incidents during the 2019-2020 school year.

Click here to check your child’s school for bullying incidents.

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