A lack of evidence led a Baltimore jury to rule that two principals were not negligent in a $1.3 million bullying lawsuit against the city school system, but jurors said they were also conscious of a snowball effect that could subject systems around the country to a barrage of lawsuits.
"This weighed heavy on us because we realized what we did would affect systems nationwide," said Carl Armstrong, who served as Juror No. 6 in the four-day trial.
"We took that heavily into consideration, because we knew we could open the possibility of lawsuits — from past, present and future parents of students — against schools across the country, and Baltimore City would have been at the forefront."
The jury returned their decision Thursday morning in the lawsuit brought by parents Edmund and Shawna Sullivan, who alleged that their special-needs son and their older daughter were bullied while attending Hazelwood and Glenmount elementary schools and that their complaints were ignored by the principals.
According to Jimmy Gittings, president of the city's principals union, the Baltimore school system is already feeling the effects of the lawsuit.
"It has been open season ever since this case became public," said Gittings, who said that he "believed in his heart" that both principals would win on all counts.
"You wouldn't believe the number of phone calls that I have been receiving from principals who have been literally harassed and threatened by parents telling them that they would take them to court over things that are very trivial."
Gittings said he was pleased with the verdict, and that the blame for bullies should be placed on the parents who raise them.
The jury said that a lack of documentation, witnesses and testimony was the primary reason the Sullivans lost the case.
The parents said that several violent incidents against their children went ignored by the schools' leaders and that their special-needs son, who is now 10, suffered physical and emotional damage as a result. The parents also alleged bullying of their now-14-year-old daughter at Hazelwood.
Armstrong said that jurors believed the boy was bullied at Hazelwood and carried the baggage to Glenmount. But the parents' lack of witnesses to the incidents, and the fact that they couldn't consistently recount names, dates, times and other details were damaging to their case, he said.
On Wednesday, Circuit Judge W. Michael Pierson granted the district's motion to throw out nine of the 13 counts, leaving the principals to each face a negligence and gross negligence count.
Charlotte Williams, who was principal of Glenmount during the year the special-needs boy attended second grade, and Sidney Twiggs, principal of Hazelwood, both testified that they addressed any incidents brought to their attention.
In the end, jurors were not convinced that the repercussions — the boy had to be institutionalized for more than two weeks after the alleged bullying — were spurred by inaction of the school leaders.
"Evidence was lacking, and there were way too many holes," Armstrong said. "Emotional-wise, they had us. But evidence-wise, they just didn't have it."
Other jurors said they were also thinking about how the lawsuit would affect the school system's ability to educate and protect other students.
"We don't need a blow to the system," said Major Wilkes, Juror No. 3. "They would have had to pay a lot of money that would take away from other kids. Instead of taking from them, we need to build the schools up with that money."
The Sullivans said it was never about money, but taking on a system they believed failed their children.
"This is the system telling us: We're not responsible for your children," Edmund Sullivan said of the verdict. "We're not the only people who have gone through this. It really puts us all on notice. I feel betrayed that the school system can do this and get away with it."