The second-biggest public school district in the state and one of the smallest private schools in San Diego share a disquieting secret — they’re being sued over alleged bullying.
On March 4, the mother of an 8-year-old autistic Native American pupil at Porter Elementary School filed a complaint against the San Diego Unified School District, alleging negligence and violations of federal law.
On March 25, the parents of a 6-year-old sued San Diego French American School, saying the La Jolla school catering to pre-K through eighth grade did nothing to stop two other children from kicking, punching and taunting their son, Luke.
Kristie Bruce-Lane, Luke’s mother, told Times of San Diego she’s spent over $100,000 on SDFAS schooling since he was 2.
The 4S Ranch resident wouldn’t comment publicly on why she kept Luke in school despite the alleged abuse, but said she made “multiple wellness checks, multiple communications to teachers and staff” in efforts to protect him.
Mark Rosenblum, head of 350-student SDFAS with an A-plus rating on niche.com, on Thursday denied the family’s allegations on behalf of the school.
“The school’s faculty, staff and administration are committed to providing the students with a safe learning environment that respects dignity for everyone,” he said in a statement. “The school has protocols and policies in place for proactively responding to and addressing student issues.”
Rosenblum said SDFAS policies stress a parent-school partnership and the “need for parents to cooperate in good faith with the school’s mission.”
“The policies also require that the school respect all students’ privacy interests and confidentiality,” he added.
A San Diego Unified spokeswoman said her district doesn’t comment on pending litigation. The San Diego Superior Court suit was filed on behalf of Aiden Solis Diaz and his mother Alyussum Diaz. The Diazes’ attorney, Marlea Dell’Anno, didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The 11-page Diaz complaint says Aiden was first victimized in January 2018 when a nurse at the Lincoln Park school called Alyussum to say Aiden had fallen down the stairs and hit his head at recess.
“When Aiden was picked up, he advised that he did not fall down the stairs, but was beaten by his classmates,” the suit says. “Aiden said the kids at his school hit him, kicked him and stepped on him.”
According to the suit, Aiden told his pediatrician: “I think I’m going to die — the kids are going to kill me.”
Alyussum Diaz called school police, and although an Officer Gonzalez responded, “he did nothing,” the suit says.
Aiden at first refused to go back to school, but his mother persuaded him to return.
A week later, Alyussum’s husband allegedly witnessed one student attempt to punch Aiden.
“This bully was the main abuser of Aiden,” the suit says. “However, school officials would not remove the bully because they said the bully was a troubled kid whose mother was in prison and lived with his grandmother. The principal refused to remove the bully, yet told [Diaz] she should remove Aiden from the school.”
Abuse continued through first grade, but school officials “continuously refused to remove the bully(s),” the suit says. “Finally, Aiden stopped going to school because he was too scared for his own safety.”
The boy would “scream and cry at the mention of going to school because he was so fearful of the ongoing abuse he suffered,” the suit says.
The alleged bullies aren’t named in the San Diego Unified suit. But two are named in the private SDFAS suit.
The 21-page Lane complaint seeks at least $25,000 in damages each for eight causes of action for incidents over a month’s time in fall 2020.
Blaming the school’s failure to address the bullying reports in compliance with the parent student handbook, the suit says: “Luke has suffered and continues to suffer severe and irreparable harm in the form of emotional distress, mental anguish, embarrassment, humiliation and anxiety and has suffered and continues to suffer financially, including, but not limited to, the cost of counseling.”
The suit also says Rosenblum on March 5 sent email to Luke’s parents saying SDFAS had decided not to offer re-enrollment for the upcoming 2021-2022 school year because the Lanes had prevented a “positive or constructive relationship” or interfered with the school’s accomplishment of its educational purpose.
The Lanes allege this banishment was made “solely in retaliation” for their seeking to have SDFAS and its head of school adhere to the contract.
Head of School Rosenblum says his school took the family’s concerns seriously and “responded in alignment with its philosophy, policies and procedures, and core values.”
“In particular,” he said, “the school’s Behavioral Response Team evaluated and thoroughly investigated the family’s concerns and implemented appropriate educational measures to address them.”
One expert on bullying found the Lanes’ suit odd.
“It is unusual for a plaintiff to address assault and battery in this manner,” said Edward F. Dragan of Lambertville, New Jersey, owner and lead expert witness at School Liability Expert Group.
Typically, parents address such claims through a prosecutor’s office as a criminal charge, he said.
But Dragan called it highly unusual for a prosecutor to entertain such charges due to the young age of the individuals.
“Also, to claim that the parent was able to control the behavior of her daughter in school is not reasonable,” he said. “I have seen lawsuits against parents for the behavior of their child, but they typically do not succeed.”
Dragan said the strongest allegation is breach of contract.
“If the contract states and … refers to the student code of conduct and bullying and there is evidence that the school breached its recognized duty to protect its students, there can be an argument that the contract between the parent, who paid tuition, and the school that was to provide services for that payment, failed to do so,” he said.
In such cases, though, the only recovery typically is the cost of tuition for the academic year in which the claim is referenced, he said.
“A claim of negligent supervision is reasonable under the allegations and this is also a strong point,” Dragan said Wednesday via email. “Negative infliction of emotional distress is difficult to show for the plaintiff. This involves experts in child psychology to compare pre and post emotional makeup.”
Luke’s mother, Kristie — who last year won election to the Olivenhain Municipal Water District board — said another bullying incident occurred after the suit was filed, “but I cannot elaborate because of pending litigation.”
IRS records for the fiscal year ending in June 2019 show the nonprofit SDFAS had total annual revenues of $8.7 million and net assets of $5.9 million. Rosenblum made $271,000 that year. The same year, San Diego Unified schools Superintendent Cindy Marten made $332,404 in salary and benefits, according to The San Diego Union-Tribune.
Updated at 11:48 a.m. April 9, 2021