Friday, May 22, 2015

Lawsuit: Boy’s move to new school quickly became hell

William C. Bryant Elementary School at 61st Street and Cedar Avenue in West Philadelphia. (GoogleMaps)
William C. Bryant Elementary School at 61st Street and Cedar Avenue in West Philadelphia. (GoogleMaps)

In October 2011, a nine-year-old boy transferred to a new school in West Philadelphia, but he quickly found his own personal hell there, according to allegations raised in a lawsuit filed last week.

Every kid new to a school might expect some razzing, but according to the lawsuit what began as insults and slurs by a handful of school bullies rapidly escalated into an exercise in terror that culminated in beatings, repeated humiliation and a brutal sexual assault in a bathroom at William C. Bryant Elementary School.

Named as defendants in the suit are the School District of Philadelphia, the school’s former principal and a former Bryant teacher. A spokesman for the school district, Fernando Gallard, acknowledged on Friday that the district had received the lawsuit but declined to comment.

The boy’s plight began soon after he entered fourth grade at the school. The boy, whose name is being withheld, was singled out by a group of classmates for “severe, pervasive, and continuous” harassment, states the suit, which was filed by his family in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas.

At first, the harassment started with derogatory slurs questioning the boy’s masculinity, calling him a variety of derogatory names. It progressed to body checks in the hallways, beatings after school, forcing the boy to watch homosexual pornography and coercing him to simulate sex by “ ‘humping’ the school flagpole while the schoolmates laughed at him.” Death threats followed, the suit states.

Even the boy’s attempts to play gospel music during a library class to drown out the taunts from the classmates, who called him a “dumb--- Einstein,” didn’t work because the same boys were viewing pornography nearby within his sight. As the torments continued for months, the gospel music-loving boy eventually began to pray “that God would kill him,” according to the suit.

The boy and his mother had complained to school officials about near-constant bullying. Their pleas for help were allegedly disregarded as the bullying escalated from taunting insults to playground violence.

The ordeal worsened on Oct. 24, 2011, the lawsuit alleges, when three classmates followed the boy into the restroom and grabbed him. One student allegedly held the boy in a headlock while two others pulled down the boy’s pants and underwear and forced him down on the tile floor. One classmate yelled “give it to the f----t, he wants it.” Then one of the classmates tried to anally rape the boy, the lawsuit alleges.

At the sound of an approaching teacher, the classmates released the boy and threatened they would “blow his brains out” or stab him to death if he told anyone, and the boy returned to his fourth-grade classroom sobbing and vomiting, according to the lawsuit.

For 10 days, the boy told no one. His behavior became strange and erratic. He threatened to commit suicide. He took naked pictures of his younger brother, according to the suit. The boy’s mother found the photos on Nov. 4 and confronted him. The boy responded by telling her about his horrific ordeal. The next morning, she called police and withdrew him from Bryant.

The three classmates were charged with attempted rape, indecent assault, unlawful restraint and related counts, police said. The school suspended the students - two of them 10 years old, the other 11 - for a week and required them to undergo counseling. In addition, the school began to require all students to be accompanied by another classmate on all trips to the restroom, according to a report in the Philadelphia Daily News. After a nine-day probe, the school sent a letter home to parents alluding to the incident with few specifics.

The letter enraged a group of parents who demanded to know why it had taken the school so long to let them know about the alleged attack. Gallard, the district spokesman, told the Daily News that officials were uncertain what happened in the restroom and didn’t want to compromise the victim’s privacy.

The lawsuit sheds the first real light on the alleged events leading up to that letter.

The boy, who had no mental health issues before the attack, became racked with intense anxiety, according to the suit. He stopped playing his favorite sports, which included soccer and fencing. He feared leaving his mother’s house. He began to hear voices telling him to sexually assault other people. A year after the alleged attack, “the boy attempted to sexually assault” a relative and “imitating what he experienced,” the suit said.

The boy’s anguish deepened. He was rushed to the emergency room after attempting to commit suicide with pills. Then the boy was hospitalized in a psychiatric facility where he tried to kill himself again, this time with a bed sheet tied around his neck, according to the suit.

The lawsuit claims the boy’s descent into depression would never have happened if then-Principal Jala Pearson and the boy’s teacher, Jason Johnson, had taken steps to adequately discipline the bullies before they proceeded to the sexual assault.

According to the suit, the boy tried to get help on several occasions from Pearson, the school principal. He was rebuffed each time, the suit states.

The boy’s mother also repeatedly tried to speak with Pearson in the days leading up to the sex assault. In one instance, the mother was told Pearson was unavailable. In another, Pearson’s office promised to schedule a meeting but never followed through. When the mother finally crossed paths with Pearson, the principal said she had received the mother’s messages, “but had been very busy and had minimal staff support.”

Unable to have a meaningful talk with the principal, the boy’s mother met with the teacher, Johnson, who the suit said acknowledged the bullying and assured her that her son would remain safe despite the lack of school resources required to provide constant supervision.

Pearson was later reassigned to Robert Fulton Elementary School in Germantown, which has since been closed by the district. Johnson was reassigned to teach third grade at J.W. Catharine Elementary in Southwest Philadelphia.

The suit seeks an unspecified amount of money for medical expenses, pain and suffering, attorney's fees and court costs. 

The issues of adequate staffing and supervision would return to haunt Bryant Elementary two years later, when a five-year-old kindergarten girl was abducted from the school by a woman dressed in Muslim garb. Posing as the girl’s mother, the woman took the girl out of class without being asked to provide proper identification. The girl was allegedly sexually assaulted, abandoned in a park and found wandering by herself wearing only a t-shirt. Police later arrested Christina Regusters, a 19-year-old after-school employee, and charged her with the girl’s kidnapping. Her trial is scheduled for Aug. 18.


Contact Sam Wood at 215-854-2796 or samwood@phillynews.com. Follow @samwoodiii on Twitter.

Contact the Breaking News Desk at 215-854-2443; BreakingNewsDesk@philly.com. Follow @phillynews on Twitter.

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