School district case could go to trial next fall, evidence-gathering underway

Court documents related to the case brought against Vashon's school district by two families alleging the district was negligent in addressing their children's harassment and bullying indicate the case could go to trial by September 2017.

Court documents related to the case brought against Vashon’s school district by two families alleging the district was negligent in addressing their children’s harassment and bullying indicate the case could go to trial by September 2017.

According to a joint status report filed in federal court Thursday, both plaintiff families and the district agreed to conclude gathering evidence by May 2017 to allow for a September trial. However, these are tentative estimates and in the coming weeks will be brought before a judge, who will help finalize dates.

Lawyers involved with the case say depositions are underway as attorneys on both sides of the case interview and gather evidence from involved students, teachers and administrators. Because the case alleges that the students’ existing psychological disabilities were exacerbated by the harassment and bullying by peers and administrators, medical, psychological and school records of the involved minor students can be requested by attorneys on both sides of the case, along with any other evidence deemed relevant.

Because of the sensitive nature of these records, courts do not release them to the public. However, court records show plaintiff Kelly Wright has filed for a protective order to ensure these records remain out of the public eye. She specifically calls attention to Vashon Island School District (VISD) Superintendent Michael Soltman’s emails to the public updating island families on the status of the suit as a reason she feels the order is needed.

“I am very concerned that if the records and emails that are requested by counsel from the school district are released … without a protective order, those emails and records, or information about them, will be either posted, described or summarized on the school district’s website or in an email from Michael Soltman,” Wright’s court motion reads. “I am afraid that the use of any emails, journal entries or other documents will negatively and irrevocably affect our lives in the community.”

She states in the motion that since the emails about the suit have started, she has lost patients from her medical practice and believes that if the emails continue, more patients will leave.

Soltman sent an email to all parents of children in the district when the suit was filed in April. He sent other emails after documents about the case were released due to public records requests, and when results of an independent investigation ordered by and paid for by the district was made public and posted on the district’s website. The investigation looked at the response of administrators and teachers to the reports of harassment and bullying.

Wright takes issue with these emails in her protective order request, saying that the emails are a “continued campaign of intimidation.”

“The better place to provide information about this lawsuit to anyone who is interested is in the trial where both sides will have a chance to explain their sides,” the motion reads.

The documents released by the district, and subsequent emails about the documents, have been in response to public records requests and had all sensitive information about the students redacted, Soltman said this week.

“I have carefully balanced my duties to protect the identity and personal information of the plaintiffs, while performing my duty to be transparent with the community about the circumstances that substantially impact the district,” Soltman said Monday. “I have been careful to be factual in each email regarding the facts in the public documents being requested and released.”

Calls to Wright’s attorney, Jeannette Cohen, were not returned Monday. She has previously declined comment to The Beachcomber, stating that she wants the case tried in court, not in the media. Cohen, Wright and the other plaintiff parent (who went by the name Antonio) appeared in a KOMO News television interview in May after Cohen sent a press release.

Meanwhile, three island attorneys — Matt Bergman, Allen Ressler and John Graffe — have offered their services free of charge to the five VISD administrators personally named as defendants in the suit. Soltman, Soltman’s assistant Donna Donnelly, VISD Title IX Coordinator Paula Cummings, Vashon High School principal Danny Rock and McMurray Middle School principal Greg Allison are already being represented by the district’s attorney, Mark O’Donnell, but are free to secure the services of another attorney if they wish. Rock is the only defendant who has entered into a formal representation and appearance agreement with one of the island lawyers. He is being represented by Bergman, known for his work on behalf of asbestos and mesothilioma victims. The other two lawyers have offered services and are serving as co-counsel alongside O’Donnell.

“Realistically, the plaintiffs are well-represented by Mark O’Donnell. He knows how to handle cases like this,” Ressler, who said he is working with one of the women named in the suit, but would not identify her, said. “On the other hand, sometimes because the district’s insurance company picks the lawyers, the plaintiffs like to go with somebody they know on a personal level. My client has seen my kids grow up, and we’re good friends.”

In an interview last week, Bergman seconded Ressler and said that all of the attorneys’ efforts are “completely in concert” with O’Donnell and that the decision to step up and offer services for free was due to their experience with the district.

“All of us, in our own ways, have benefited from the school system,” he said. “We owe it a debt of gratitude and wanted to give back in a meaningful way. These allegations are significant.”

He also said he feels the case is gratuitous in its naming of individual defendants.

“Nobody gets into education for fame and fortune, but because of a heartfelt desire to serve kids,” Bergman said. “The impact the (case) filing has on these conscientious workers is staggering.”

He said that he wanted to be clear that bullying in any form is wrong and needs to be addressed seriously, especially in schools.

“Individuals and institutions are works in progress,” he said. “We are developing as a society and culture toward a more sensitive and caring direction and schools are at the forefront of that progression.”


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