NEWARK, N.J. (CN) – Hitting the elementary school one block from her home with a federal complaint, a New Jersey mom says the district threw out her bullied daughter in retaliation for bad press.
Though the Nov. 14 complaint abbreviates the names of mother and child, local news reports have for weeks reported on the plight of Irina Spektor and her 9-year-old, Emma.
Represented by South Orange attorney David Giles, the family says Emma had no problems in school until four girls in her third-grade classroom began bullying her last year.
As detailed in the complaint, Emma endured the abuse quietly at first because the teacher from whom she initially sought help told her to “handle it herself.”
Emma finally confided in her mother over the summer, however, and they met with the school principal this past September, a day before the start of the new school year.
Though Emma was initially looking forward to a fresh start in fourth grade, these hopes evaporated when the Spektors learned in early September that the Springfield School District’s looping policy meant that the upcoming school year at the Thelma L. Sandmeier Elementary School would be spent with the same bullies and same unhelpful teacher.
Because a birthmark on her leg had drawn cruel comments from her classmates in third grade, Emma had taken to wearing long pants regardless of the weather.
The complaint says she asked her mom over the summer if she could get plastic surgery to have the birthmark removed.
Irina says her daughter’s emotional and psychological harm from the previous year was palpable, but that the school refused to put Emma in a different class at Sandmeier. The school’s refusal stemmed not from what was best for Emma but from its sensitivity to unrelated complaints about Emma’s teacher and the looping policy, according to the complaint.
During her first month of fourth grade, Emma saw a private counselor who diagnosed her with anxiety and depression. Her pediatrician also determined she was not eating or sleeping properly, the lawsuit claims.
Irina says she pulled Emma from school at the end of September, and a psychiatrist diagnosed her shortly thereafter with major depressive disorder and recommended home instruction for at least a month, as well as a change in classroom.
Following news reports about the bullying and school’s refusal to change classrooms, school board attorney Kerri Wright emailed the family’s attorney on Nov. 6 and said that Emma was no longer welcome at Sandmeier.
“Unfortunately, while we could have — and were prepared to — make more than adequate accommodations for return to her previously assigned classroom … your client’s media exploits have made that an unacceptable option,” Wright wrote, as quoted in the complaint.
Wright noted in her email that the news coverage had caused word of the bullying to spread to nearly every student at the elementary school.
Several parents reportedly spoke of their own children’s experiences with bullying at the school during a public board meeting that night.
According to a story in the Patch, one parent said her son had told her that he wished he were no longer “here on Earth because it would make the kids in school feel better.” Another parent claimed bullies had dumped urine-filled toilet water on her son.
Superintendent Michael Davino reportedly said at the meeting that it was school officials who were being victimized by bully parents. Davino called the students’ bullying stories unsubstantiated, and defended the practice of classroom looping.
More than a dozen parents in the Springfield school district earlier this year created a group called “Limit Looping” to stop the district’s practice.
Though some education experts tout the benefits of looping, saying it establishes close and consistent relationships between students and teachers, others claim it can promote stagnation in the classroom or negative stereotypes of children by peers or even teachers.
After the public meeting, Davino posted a seven-page message on the school district’s website decrying that “half-truths” by parents and the media and claiming that teachers and administrators have been the target of “unkind emails and vulgar voicemails.”
Davino claimed that no official bullying or harassment claims had been made by any parents in that classroom during the 2016-17 school year, and that Spektor’s initial bid to switch Emma’s classroom stemmed from a personal dislike of her teacher.
“It was not until after her request to move her daughter to another teacher was denied that she raised to administration, for the very first time, a claim of bullying,” Davino’s statement said. “At that time, the parent requested that this claim of bullying NOT be investigated by the school.”
Davino also noted that an “anti-bullying specialist” interviewed Emma and found that Emma did not confirm much of the alleged bullying.
The statement concluded with Davino saying, “based upon the media reports and records we have been provided, which we are not privy to discuss publicly, we believe this young lady should not return to the Sandmeier School.”
In a lengthy response to the statement published at the Patch, Irina Spektor wrote that she had reached out to another teacher at the school regarding the bullying, which was her only concern. “My issue was to move my child ASAP (and I was hoping this would be done BEFORE the school year began, thus allowing her to simply start a new school year with a different class in a safe and nuturing environment,” Spektor wrote.
Another public meeting is scheduled for Nov. 20.
Spektor’s attorney did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Davino was not immediately available by phone, and he did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.