A couple is suing the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, claiming their son was not protected by the district after being repeatedly bullied by fellow students over his severe nut allergy.
The complaint says the fourth grader was attending Highland Creek Elementary and that the bullying continued through the entire 2014-15 school year. His parents made the decision to switch him to a private school once he finished the school year and had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, the complaint says. Although lawsuits are a public record, the Observer is not releasing the name of the parents to protect the identity of the student.
CMS officials said federal student privacy laws forbid them from discussing the case. But in a legal answer to the suit the district denied any wrongdoing, according to the couple’s lawyer. The parents are seeking punitive damages for the school’s failure, as well as money for an attorney and counseling for their son.
The suit says the bullying started with a threat on Sept. 4, 2014. Their son had told another student, identified as “Student 1” in the complaint, that he is deathly allergic to pistachios and cashews. In response, the student warned him to “watch out,” saying he was going to bring nuts to school, according to the suit.
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The boy’s parents then met with administrators and the school’s principal, Ernest Saxton. They discussed CMS’s code of conduct, which details that intimidation of any sort is forbidden, the complaint said.
When the threats continued, the boy’s parents scheduled another meeting at the end of the month, when the suit quotes Saxton as saying he viewed Student 1’s threats as “diarrhea of the mouth,” and that he didn’t think the comments were intended as real death threats.
The suit also alleges that Saxton later brought the boy into his office and told him it was his fault he was being bullied, and suggested being nicer to Student 1 might solve the problem.
The bullying continued, the suit said, and the boy’s mental and emotional health deteriorated, and he began to fear for his life.
During September of that year, Community Superintendent Matthew Hayes asked the boy’s parents what it would take for them to feel safe, the suit said. They requested that Student 1 be removed from their son’s class. Hayes said that was not possible, but instead suggested their son change schools as a solution.
The parents declined because they felt that would send the wrong message to their son about who was at fault, the complaint said.
The district enacted a behavioral plan that separated the two by moving them to different classes and forbidding them from participating in the same recess activities. However, the complaint said the plan was violated regularly and wasn’t enforced.
Six days after the plan was created, the complaint said Student 1 was suspended for telling other kids to bully the boy. Despite his suspension, Student 1’s friends hit and punched the boy in November of 2014, the suit said. In April, the suit said the boy was diagnosed with PTSD.
According to the couple’s lawyer Karen Vaughn, the parents tried everything before resorting to a lawsuit.
This case resonates with Vaughn. She has a son with special needs and taught special needs students for 11 years in North Carolina before becoming a lawyer. “I’m very big on being able to stand up for these kids,” she said. “Because as a teacher, I thought that was not being done.”
She said it was the district’s responsibility to treat the boy’s food allergies seriously and that his condition was covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act. The act defines a disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual.” Vaughn said this includes the boy, who could have had a severe reaction from even the residue of a nut.
In an email, his mother told the Observer that she sees the suit as a fight on the behalf of all students who are bullied and feel voiceless.
“It makes every difference in the world to your child to show that they are worth fighting for.”
Cole: 704-358-5357; @kianamcole