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Bullying allegations spark lawsuit against Petaluma City Schools

A former Petaluma Junior High School student is suing Petaluma City Schools after she says another student attacked her two years ago in a video-recorded confrontation, and that subsequent harassment from the attacker and others was met with inaction from top school officials.

In the federal lawsuit filed Jan. 29, the unnamed student, who is represented by her mother, alleges the initial attack and the wave of bullying that followed forced her into a remote learning environment and deprived her of equal access to education.

Along with Petaluma City Schools and two school resource officers, the lawsuit names a former Petaluma Junior High School vice principal and a host of other defendants, including the alleged attackers and witnesses.

In the Feb. 4, 2019, attack, which the girl alleges took place within view of at least one teacher, the student had her hair pulled and had her head slammed against a concrete wall, according to the lawsuit.

“As a result of the physical attack…(the plaintiff) suffered a concussion, severe humiliation and fear for her safety,” according to the lawsuit.

Petaluma City Schools spokesperson Ashley Collingwood said the district is aware of the lawsuit, and that its legal team is looking into it.

“Other than that, we’re not prepared to comment at this time,” Collingwood said via email.

Petaluma City Schools Board of Education President Joanna Paun, who was reached via phone, also declined to comment.

The district has hired San Francisco-based Bertrand, Fox, Elliot, Osman & Wenzel for its defense. Lauren Wood, an attorney with the law firm, also declined to comment.

“Because your inquiry relates to pending litigation, we are unable to provide a comment at this time,” Wood said via email.

The district has not yet filed a response to the lawsuit.

The girl, now 15, is represented by San Francisco-based attorney Paul Henry Nathan, Santa Rosa-based lawyer Brian Gearinger, and her mother was appointed a legal representative in the case.

Phone messages left with both lawyers were not immediately returned.

But in a Wednesday morning filing, Gearinger indicated the girl’s legal team would be open to discussing alternative dispute resolution in a case management conference with a magistrate judge.

The girl’s lawsuit lays out the Feb. 4, 2019, attack in ominous detail. Rumors swirled all day that another girl in school intended to fight the victim. In gym class, students gathered to talk about how the attacker was mad at the victim, according to the lawsuit. Across the courtyard, the alleged attacker stalked back and forth.

When the school bell rang, the lawsuit alleges, the attack from behind commenced.

“(The attacker) attacked (the victim) from behind, pulling (the victim’s) hair and beating (the victim’s) head into a concrete wall,” according to the lawsuit. “The attack was witnessed by a teacher or teachers at Petaluma Junior High School.”

The lawsuit alleges three other girls recorded the attack on their phones, later posting those videos to social media – a charge denied by one of the girls in subsequent legal filings.

The Argus-Courier will not name the students, as they were minors at the time of the alleged confrontation.

The victim’s mother, who the Argus-Courier is not identifying to avoid publicizing the victim’s identity, is said to have reported the videos of the attack to the school principal, and that another school official, a former vice principal, responded that the girls would be forced to remove the videos.

The girl wouldn’t return to school for three days. And when she did, the lawsuit alleges, she was victimized again, with the other girls alternately making fun of her and intimidating her. Apart from in-school suspension ordered for one of the girls, Petaluma Junior High School leaders, including a school resource officer named in the initial complaint but later dismissed, did nothing to interfere with the ongoing harassment, the lawsuit alleges.

Further complaints, the girl’s mother asserts, were largely dismissed by school officials, including a former vice principal, who said “there isn’t anything I can do about girls being mean to each other,” according to the lawsuit.

The girl would eventually transition to attending school from home, and over time, the girl’s fear of leaving the house, later diagnosed as post traumatic stress disorder, would necessitate the family’s move out of state, according to the complaint.

Tyler Silvy is editor of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. Reach him at tyler.silvy@arguscourier.com, 707-776-8458, or @tylersilvy on Twitter.

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