In an unusual step, the Springville Unified Elementary School District (SUESD) is taking court action against an alleged schoolyard bully.
Bully’s Victim Sues District, Employees
The district’s action is a response to a recently-filed lawsuit by the family of the alleged bully’s victim. That suit claims SUESD failed to adequately protect their son despite knowing the potential danger to him. The victim and his parents are seeking a cash award in the case.
Plaintiffs in the case are Jennifer and Corey Troutt, parents of the alleged victim, sixth-grader JBT. Auburn-based attorney Brett Rosenthal represents the plaintiffs..
Named as co-defendants are the SUESD, Springville Elementary School (SES) principal Connie Owens, and two SES sixth-grade teachers, Priscilla Benas and Jackie Borges.
As in many such cases, the list of co-defendants includes Does 1-20, indicating additional defendants whose identities are not currently known who could be added to the suit. With that in mind, attorneys for SUESD have filed a cross-complaint that seeks to make the alleged bully responsible for any future court-awarded damages to the alleged victim.
Handling the cross-complaint and representing the co-defendants and the district is Fresno-based attorney James Arendt.
Attorney Says District Dodging Responsibility
Rosenthal, attorney for JBT and his family, believes the cross-complaint against the alleged bully – referred to as MS in court documents – is an attempt to make a child responsible for its supposed negligence.
“The school district, instead of taking responsibility, filed a suit against the attacker,” he said.
However, the district’s strategy may backfire, as the attempt to indemnify the district could lead a jury to see the cross-complaint as an implied admission of responsibility. The district, it might appear, was aware its employees could have done more to protect an at-risk student.
“The school district made it easy on me,” Rosenthal said.
The district, JBT’s attorney said, knew his alleged attacker posed a specific threat to his client.
“The school district was aware and had a one-on-one supervisor assigned to him (MS),” Rosenthal said.
MS is currently under court-ordered guardianship. Acting as MS’s guardian ad litem is Dustin Skiles, who is also named as a cross-defendant in SUESD’s cross-complaint.
The cross-complaint, while denying all allegations against the district brought on behalf of JBT, says his alleged attacker MS should bear at least part of the cost of any judgment resulting from the case, as well as the cost of defending the district.
Playground Fight Led to Lawsuit
According to the suit filed on JBT’s behalf, MS attacked JBT “without warning or provocation” during an unsupervised soccer game.
“MS grabbed plaintiff JBT and placed him in a headlock for some period of time and when he let go, then punched JBT in the face, causing JBT to suffer significant personal injuries,” the suit alleges.
According to the suit, the two teachers and the school’s principal were aware JBT had been the target of previous bullying and harassment, yet the school failed to provide proper supervision.
The incident happened on October 13, 2022. Almost a year earlier, JBT was the victim of another bully in an incident that led to severe injuries. JBT’s attorney asserts school officials should have been aware of his client’s vulnerability. The suit alleges school personnel were aware MS and other students continuously harassed JBT about the prior attack he suffered, yet failed to provide any supervision.
“At the time of the incident, October 13, 2022, the defendants were all aware of the prior incident and the ongoing treatment of JBT and continued to allow it to happen without consequence to the other students, including MS,” the suit states.
A photograph included in the initial case filing on JBT’s behalf includes a picture of the boy and his injuries. Visible injuries include a prominent abrasion on the child’s forehead.
District Confused Bully Incidents
The school district’s cross-complaint mistakenly describes the incident between MS and JBT very differently. The district’s attorneys likely erroneously recounted events of the earlier alleged incident of bullying that involved JBT as a victim.
The SUESD suit details the events that took place one year earlier on November 30, 2021. That incident did not involve MS.
The alleged attacker in the November 30, 2021 incident is identified as LL in the case filed on JBT’s behalf. The events described by the SUESD cross-complaint imply JBT became involved in a dispute between LL and another student.
“… (LL) and another classmate bumped into one another,” the SUESD filing states. “(LL) then expressed anger toward the other classmate, when plaintiff (JBT) then told minor (LL) to ‘stop’ what he was doing.”
The district’s filing states JBT then pushed LL, and LL retaliated.
“(LL) responded by tackling him (JBT) to the cement,” the SUESD filing continues. “(LL) then began hitting (JBT’s) head upon the ground.”
A second suit has been filed against the SUESD on JBT’s behalf, Rosenthal said.
District Allegedly Failed to Protect Students
The main assertion of the suit against the SUESD and its employees is neglecting to protect JBT when it was known he was a frequent target of ongoing bullying.
“Defendants Owens, Benas and Borges … knew or reasonably should have known that Minor MS, along with other classmates and students, constantly harassed, teased and occasionally physically abused Plaintiff JBT, and without supervision, could violently assault him again,” the suit states.
The suit alleges the defendants placed all of the SES students at risk by inaction.
“It was foreseeable that if defendants did not adequately exercise or provide the level of care owed to children/students in their care, including but not limited to Plaintiff JBT, the children entrusted to Defendants’ care would be vulnerable and subject to physical injury from other students, including Minor MS,” the suit states.
According to the filing on JBT’s behalf, because doctors recommended JBT stay home from school for an extended period following the assault, Corey Troutt was unable to work while staying home to provide supervision.
And because JBT’s mother Jennifer Troutt “was not willing to rely” on school staff to ensure her son’s safety when he returned to class, she accompanied him “each and every minute” he was on campus.
Finally, the suit alleges members of the SES staff – including named co-defendants Owens, Benas and Borges – were “unfit to protect and supervise” both JBT and MS.
A case management conference to determine how the cases will advance is set for 8:30 a.m. on November 30. Judge John Bianco will preside.
Editor’s note: The SUESD’s misidentification of MS as LL in court filings has been corrected here for clarity.