The Bellevue School District will go to court April 30 for a retrial on a former Bellevue family’s 2014 bullying lawsuit.
Jennifer and Allen Quynn filed the lawsuit four years ago alleging the district was negligent and breached its duty to protect their daughter when she became the subject of bullying, sexual harassment and assault following her report of a sexual assault incident against her friend on a Chinook Middle School bus in December 2010.
At the time, their daughter was 13 years old.
The Quynns say the way the district handled the investigation — not informing them of key findings or reports until one year later and alleging they didn’t report the assault to police — attributed to their daughter’s subsequent depression, post traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders, anxiety and self-harm behaviors throughout her high school years.
“She reported what she saw to the school administrators in two pages of writing the next day,” Jennifer Quynn said. “Our lives were forever changed from that moment on. The administrators diminished her account and didn’t conduct an investigation. They didn’t call police and they destroyed a video tape of that first assault.”
Jennifer Quynn said she and her husband didn’t learn their daughter had been retaliated against for reporting the assault until months after she had been hospitalized in October 2011 for symptoms related to her severe eating disorder. They pulled her out of Bellevue High School, months after she had just started at the school and tried to find alternative schooling options but she still lives with the effects today.
“She wasn’t able to communicate what had been done to her because of the PTSD but the school administrators knew that the school bus was a very, very dangerous place,” Jennifer Quynn said. “When we tried to find out what had happened to our daughter, find out information that could support her recovery, the district covered it up.”
The Quynns did eventually learn the boys who allegedly sexually harassed their daughter’s friend began calling their daughter names like “ugly,” “stupid” “fat” and “dumb blonde” after the report. They also shot paperclips at her and allegedly sexually assaulted her as well.
Her parents filed the lawsuit in 2014 and went to court in 2015, but were shocked by the district’s response.
“I think our case is really important for parents to understand what could happen if their child reports a crime against another child,” Jennifer Quynn said. “Your child may be charged with negligence, causing their own injuries.”
Which is what happened to their daughter, they said.
BSD’s chief of staff Eileen Harrity said the district has consistently denied claims that it did not properly supervise students, which allegedly caused the Quynns’ daughter to be injured.
Harrity said the district did investigate the Quynns’ daughter’s report of the school bus incident and, after a review of the bus video and interviews with her friend and eye witnesses, “took appropriate disciplinary action against a student on the bus.” They did not, however, find any wrongdoing on the part of the district or its staff.
“Any claims by the Quynns or their daughter related to witnessing this event were dismissed by the trial judge during the first trial and are not a part of the present claim,” Harrity said.
This, she said, was backed up when the jury ruled in the district’s favor back in April 2015.
“Essentially, the jury found that BSD’s supervision of its students was appropriate and did not result in any harm to the parents or their daughter,” Harrity wrote in an email. “The first trial was appealed and was reversed on a technical issue regarding the court’s legal instruction to the jury on the standard of care.”
Now, Harrity points out, the Quynns’ daughter is over the age of 18 and she has decided to dismiss her claims against the district.
“The parents are seeking a money award claiming that they were injured because of the way some students at BSD treated their daughter,” Harrity said. “The case before the jury will address the same issues of supervision that were part of the first trial. The district is confident that this second jury will come to the same conclusion as the first jury.”
Although a jury returned a verdict in favor of the school district in summer 2015, the Quynns’ appeal was granted in 2016, which warranted a retrial.
The jury had determined the family failed to prove the district acted negligently as the Quynns claimed the district’s relationship with a student while on the bus was under the “common carrier’s duty of care” umbrella.
The court said that was incorrect.
However, it deemed the Quynns were correct when they argued the “instructions given to the jury did not properly articulate the legal obligations owed by the district to its student and required proof of unnecessary facts in order for the Quynns to prevail.”
The school district’s legal obligations include the following: “A school district has a duty to take ordinary care to prevent harassment, intimidation and bullying of one student by another if it knows or has reason to know that a student is the subject of harassment, intimidation or bullying by another student.”
According to district policy, harassment, intimidation or bullying means intentional written, verbal or physical actions that a) harms a student or damages a student’s property, b) interferes with a student’s education, c) is so severe or persistent that it creates an intimidating or threatening education environment or d) has the effect to substantially disrupt the operation of school.
However, the Quynns argued that by imposing the administrative definition of the harassment, intimidation and bullying policy, the trial court “improperly restricted the scope of the tort claim while requiring enhanced elements of proof in order for the Quynns to prevail.”
Precedence, determined in McLeod v. Grant County School District, indicates the Quynns did not need to prove their daughter had been harassed and a) was harmed or had property damaged b) that it interfered with her education, c) it was so severe or persistent that it created an intimidating or threatening education environment for her or d) had the effect to substantially disrupt the operation of her schooling.
“The tort duty imposed by law, on the other hand, is focused on personal safety of the student,” the appellate decision states. “The district has a duty to prevent a foreseeable rape regardless of whether a student can be raped without altering the overall ‘orderly operation of the school.’ So does the district have the obligation to prevent foreseeable harassment.”
The second area the court found to be appeal-able, was that the “court failed to give jury instructions on the special relationship and duty between the district to exercise reasonable care to protect students from foreseeable harm.”
“When foreseeable, the district must anticipate and prevent the first harm from occurring,” the appellate decision states.
“The Court of Appeals of the State of Washington ordered a new trial for good reasons and their language is clear – districts have a duty to prevent harm to students,” Jennifer Quynn said. “The Bellevue School District continues to minimize the harm they could have prevented. We encourage parents to read the appeal court’s published opinion to know what happened in this case and Bellevue School District’s response to sexual assault. Also, parents can come to the trial and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.”
The Quynn v. BSD trial will go before judge John R. Ruhl on April 30.