Pinellas school district hit by two bullying lawsuits

ST. PETERSBURG — The Pinellas school district recently began hosting training sessions for parents who need help protecting their children from bullies.

But in two lawsuits filed against the district in the past six weeks, a pair of mothers say it's the district that needs to do more to protect kids from school bullying. Both mothers say that their children were seriously injured by bullies and that school officials should have done more to prevent the attacks. Both women seek at least $15,000 in damages.

One of the mothers said a bully broke her son's leg at Sawgrass Lake Elementary School. The other woman said her son was beaten up by a gang of kids at Azalea Middle School, even after officials were told of previous beatings and promised to protect the boy.

School officials said they could not comment on the lawsuits.

The district, like all others in the state, is required by law to have a bullying and harassment policy.

Jan Urbanski of the district's Safe and Drug Free Schools office said Pinellas schools are getting better at protecting kids from bullies, which has become a prominent topic in the education field. Parents and students can report instances of bullying online. Teachers and administrators are required to take bullying prevention training, Urbanski said.

Recently, the district also began hosting bullying prevention and intervention strategy training meetings for parents, she said.

"I'd say as far as prevention goes, Pinellas ranks at the top," Urbanski said. "I think we do a great job."

But a lawyer for one of the mothers disagrees.

"They weren't even interested in talking about it," said state Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, a lawyer who is representing the mother of the Azalea student. "We thought we'd get their attention with a lawsuit. We believe they are responsible."

Rouson's client, Velma Newman, said in her suit, filed Oct. 14, that her 14-year-old son complained to a faculty member on March 9 that he was being bullied at the St. Petersburg school.

Later that day, the suit says, the boy was jumped. Because of the incident, Newman and school officials decided it would be best for the boy to stay home for a few days.

The boy returned to school three days later after officials said it was safe to come back, the suit says. A day later, a group of bullies threatened the boy. His mother was called to pick him up once again.

A few days later, the boy was jumped by the group as he got off a bus. He suffered serious injuries, including a broken jaw, the suit states.

In the other lawsuit, filed Sept. 28, Jennifer Giroux claims a bully at Sawgrass Lake Elementary in St. Petersburg taunted and beat up her son.

Giroux says her son was attending a physical education class on Oct. 6, 2006, when a bully began taunting and tripping him. When the bell rang, the bully tackled Giroux's son to the ground, the complaint says, breaking his leg.

Neither Giroux nor her attorney could be reached for comment. The boy's age was not listed in the suit.

Rouson said his young client's life has been changed by the incident. He said the boy has become withdrawn.

"He's still going through emotional issues," Rouson said. "These injuries were devastating to him."

Kameel Stanley can be reached at kstanley@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8643.

Pinellas school district hit by two bullying lawsuits 11/11/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 11, 2009 9:31pm]

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