Vashon school district settles with families who filed harassment lawsuit

The two island plaintiffs who brought a lawsuit against Vashon’s school district alleging its staff was negligent in addressing claims of harassment and bullying have settled with the district for $340,000.

The settlement is far less than the more than $30 million sought when the case was filed in April 2016. Island naturopath Kelly Wright, who brought the suit on behalf of her teenage daughter, will receive $170,000 — $75,000 after paying attorney’s fees and associated costs, court documents show. The other plaintiff, a now 18-year-old girl represented by her parents, one of whom has been identified only as “Antonio” on a KOMO television interview, will receive the same amount, Vashon Island School District (VISD) Superintendent Michael Soltman said. Payment is coming from the school’s insurance company.

A judge last Thursday approved the settlement for Wright’s minor daughter — settlements for adults do not have to be approved by the court. The action also dismissed the case against the district and comes two months after the plaintiffs, school district, the district’s insurance company and attorneys met with a mediator. It was in the days following that June 14 meeting that the settlements were reached and the case resolved. The case cannot be brought back to court.

Mark O’Donnell, the school district’s attorney, said Monday that mediation is a required part of the dispute resolution process for federal cases — the lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court.

“Through the mediator’s efforts, a solution was presented and the district’s insurance company felt it made business sense to resolve the case,” he said.

He said that regarding the settlement amount, he can only speak from the school district’s insurance company’s point of view, but that the amount is “justified in light of the anticipated cost of proceeding through trials.”

The lawsuit was scheduled to go to trial next month.

Reached last week, Jeannette Cohen, the plaintiffs’ attorney, denied to comment beyond saying only that the case had been settled and both plaintiffs settled the case together.

Last Thursday’s action brings to an end a 16-month-long legal ordeal that saw plaintiff Wright repeatedly try to seal multiple documents from student and medical documents to, most recently, the settlement documents. Court records show Wright wanted to seal the court’s approval of her settlement for “the best interest of the minor (her daughter).” While the judge did seal one of the documents associated with the settlement, another was kept public and lists the settlement amount and how it will be divided among attorney’s fees, other costs and payment to Wright.

“A vague claim of ‘best interest of the minor’ cannot justify a secret Court order,” the judge wrote in the public settlement document obtained by The Beachcomber.

Neither Wright nor the other plaintiff family responded to The Beachcomber’s requests for comment.

At the school district, Soltman said that while the district continues to deny the allegations and “any liability related to the allegations,” the settlement means the school district and its teachers can move on.

“We are pleased to have the legal process fully resolved, and we will continue our longstanding commitment to ensuring that our schools and programs offer the most welcoming and safe learning environment available in our state,” he said in a Friday email.

He said at the time of the suit’s filing in April 2016 that the suit, and the multi-million dollar price tag, was having “a profound effect” on the district’s administrators.

The lawsuit initially named the Vashon school district, Soltman and multiple other administrators as defendants — the individual defendants were removed from the suit in April — and alleged that administrators failed to address and stop daily harassment and discrimination targeted at the two female students at McMurray Middle School and Vashon High School. The suit stated that between Sept. 8, 2015, and April 2016, the two students were subjected to harassment so severe and constant that it “created a hostile learning environment.” According to the initial 23-page complaint, both students also have disabilities that include anxiety disorders.

Soltman ordered an independent investigation into the complaints before the suit was filed, which showed district administrators did act appropriately to address the alleged harassment.

The legal process pressed on with months of depositions. In February, Matt Bergman, the attorney for Vashon High School principal Danny Rock, filed a counterclaim stating that the Wright/Antonio suit was retaliation for an incident that happened in January 2016 involving Wright and the school district. It alleged that Wright filed her suit because school district officials believed her clinic, Vashon Natural Medicine (VNM),was being “medically reckless” when a provider prescribed “highly addictive and hazardous psychotropic drugs” to a high school student. A 16-year-old student reportedly sought out school support staff for help with mild anxiety and difficulties in social relationships. The student was referred to VNM and prescribed Xanax and Lexapro. According to Bergman’s claim, the student received “minimal information” about the drugs and their potential side effects.

Two months after the counterclaim was filed, individual defendants, including Rock, were removed from the lawsuit.

Looking back, the school district’s attorney said Monday that the case was “a very emotional and complicated” one.

“To me, there are no winners in this case. This case has had a polarizing impact on the community,” O’Donnell said. “It’s in everybody’s best interests to move forward.”

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