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Student's lawsuit: Bullying ignored by Fargo school

Fargo's school system did not sufficiently respond to complaints about years of repeated harassment of a student with a lazy eye and a speech impediment, the student claims in a lawsuit.

An attorney representing the unnamed student said that the bullying was such common knowledge that it was the subject of a senior skit three years after her client transferred schools.

The student-penned skit portrayed the plaintiff as "the most bullied kid in school" returning to his 10-year class reunion, according to the lawsuit in Cass County District Court.

The character representing the John Doe plaintiff was quoted in the lawsuit as saying, "You! All of you! Did you really think I would forget? Did you all think you could just get away with what you did?"

"It's kind of making him a victim one last time when he's not even at the school," said the student's attorney, Pat Monson. "I think it's pretty obvious that something needed to be done."

Gary Thune, the attorney for the school district, said the skit was one of 30 or 40 that were to be performed together on multiple dates in May 2008. After school officials received complaints about the skit in question, it was removed from the lineup of the remaining shows.

"I think that was a good decision by the district," he said.

Rick Buresh, the district superintendent, declined to comment about the allegations made in the lawsuit.

"It would probably be inappropriate to act or comment on that," he said. "I think the attorneys are going to vigorously defend the school district and come up with what is right."

Though it admits the skit was performed, the district disputes many of the other claims in the lawsuit, most of which are denied in the district's written answer to the plaintiff's complaint.

"Obviously, there's going to be factual issues," Thune said.

Monson said the skit is a clear indication of how long-term and well-known the bullying was. "I don't think you can deny that this happened," she said.

Court filings contend the harassment began when the plaintiff was in the fourth grade and continued until he transferred to Shanley High School while in ninth grade. Tormenting turned physical at times, the lawsuit claims, as the student on many occasions was given black eyes and swollen lips by classmates.

The anonymous student, who is now 20, still suffers from the emotional effects of the abuse and will likely be on antidepressants for life, Monson said.

"It just wears like water on a rock. You just can't take it after a while," she said.

The lawsuit accuses the school district of not properly responding to repeated complaints about the bullying and not doing enough to punish the perpetrators. It seeks unspecified damages in excess of $50,000.

Far too often, Monson said, school officials would reprimand the plaintiff for being upset about the way he was treated.

An instance cited in the lawsuit alleges that he was made to stand in the corner in German class after raising his voice to complain.

Another example in the complaint claims a teacher who saw several students blocking the plaintiff from entering a classroom sent him to the school office, not those blocking his way.

"There's an immediate stigma attached," Monson said of being the target of bullies. "Now they're being victimized by the teacher."

While he wouldn't comment on the claims found in the lawsuit, Buresh said stopping bullying has been a greater focus in Fargo schools in the years since the plaintiff transferred out of the district in 2005.

Thune said bullying policies were in place when the student was in school, and those policies were followed. He denied that targets of harassment were disciplined as bullies went unpunished.

"That just didn't happen," he said.

The lawsuit was served on the district in 2008 but wasn't filed in court until February. At a scheduling hearing last week, a deadline to be ready for a trial was set for April 2011.