Lawsuit details bullying cases

Amended complaint describes alleged incidents at AASD

A new and more detailed civil complaint concerning the suicide death of 12-year-old Wyatt Lansberry, an Altoona Area Junior High School student, has been filed with the U.S. District Court in Johnstown, revealing that the day the youngster took his life, he was seen by another student crying while in the office of an administrator or counselor.

Wyatt, allegedly troubled by the constant bullying and harassment he experienced at school, took his life on May 18, 2017, after he “was turned away and not provided assistance,” according to the lawsuit filed Wednesday by Altoona attorney Steven P. Passarello.

This information came from the investigation into the death by Altoona Detective Sgt. Marshall Worling, who pursed the case for several months.

Worling stated in his incident report that “bullying and harassment appeared to be a factor in the suicide,” the amended complaint said.

U.S. District Judge Kim R. Gibson in July dismissed several of Passarello’s civil charges against the Altoona Area School District after the district’s attorney, Maureen Barber of Pittsburgh, contended that the lawsuit did not contain specifics of who bullied Wyatt or what school district personnel knew and what they did to address the bullying.

Gibson gave Passarello a chance to amend his complaint and to provide more detail.

The new complaint contends the district violated Title IX of the federal Education Acts of 1972 by failing to take action against gender abuse suffered by Wyatt.

The new complaint also charges that the district through a policy of “deliberate indifference” did not enforce its own anti-bullying policies.

It charged also that the district failed to report instances of sexual harassment and violence against Wyatt and others as required by state law.

Passarello stated that Marc Lansberry, Wyatt’s father and the executor of his son’s estate, has now “shown an environment (in the school) that permitted bullying and harassment to flourish” over a period of several years.

Allegations in the lawsuit say the boy “was subjected to bullying/harassment and was turned away on multiple occasions from decision-making administrators without redress, which is consistent with other factual allegations presented by (Lansberry) and the custom and practice of deliberate indifference of the defendant to bullying and harassment,” according to the Passarello filing.

Wyatt was not alone

Worling, in the initial stages of his investigation, was informed by a school district police officer

that “multiple students” observed Wyatt being bullied.

He learned that Wyatt had previously gone to school counselors in the fifth or sixth grade, and on May 22, 2017, just days after the investigation began, the detective searched the boy’s iPhone and iPad and found several conversations in which Wyatt told others about “his desire to harm himself.”

Worling requested video from the school district for May 17-18, 2017, but was told no video remained from May 17.

It took the district three months to provide video from the 18th, the day Wyatt committed suicide.

Also during the investigation, the detective learned that another student told Wyatt to “go home and shoot himself.”

The detective was able to interview the student who made that remark and learned that he also was a victim of school bullying.

He told the detective he was called “ginger,” a derogatory term meaning gay. He was told he “had no soul” because he was gay.

The parent of the boy said she made several attempts to contact the school about these incidents, but no action was taken.

The detective, following up on those incidents, contacted a school counselor who learned the boy was referred to as “gingerbread man.”

The counselor never contacted that boy’s parents, and the parents of the “bullies” were never contacted.

In interviewing three students, Worling also learned that a fellow student called Wyatt a “ginger” and physically assaulted him.

As the detective’s investigation continued into June 2017, he spoke to another student, in the presence of his parents, who reported two weeks prior to the suicide, a group of boys assaulted Wyatt in Stairway H of the junior high school, and that Wyatt told a teacher.

The teacher did not report the incident.

That boy said he helped Wyatt pick up his books after the assault.

The person saw Wyatt enter the office of a school counselor two weeks prior to his death.

Wyatt was one among many in the school being bullied, according to the lawsuit:

— In 2012, an autistic child was knocked down by an alleged bully. This was reported to city and school district police. “Boys will be boys,” the district allegedly answered.

— Another child, suffering from dyslexia and on an Individual Education Plan, was repeatedly improperly touched — a Title IX violation — by a male student “in sexually intimate areas,” it is contended.

The student’s mother became involved, and supposedly the offending youngster was to be assigned to a different lunchroom. That never happened. The child “continues to be harassed and bullied at the Altoona Area School District.”

— In June, during summer school, a student reported he was standing by the mountain lion statue near the junior high school when approached by another student carrying a semiautomatic handgun.

The male with the gun then entered the school, and while in math class with the victim, the student pulled out the gun and stated he had bullets for his/her head.

The student, the lawsuit stated, “took heroic unilateral action, got the other students out of the room and held the door shut from the outside while another student ran for help.”

No contact was made with the victim’s parents, and no lockdown message was sent to parents whose children were in the building, the lawsuit charged.

Metal detector wands were used on students the next day when they were entering the building, but the wands were not

used again.

Lawsuit targets staff

Attorney Dan Kiss, who is associated Passarello, said Thursday that Gibson wanted them to show more of a pattern or course of action by the school district when charging federal civil rights violations.

After Gibson’s July opinion, the Lansberry attorneys obtained a subpoena from the judge asking for the release of Altoona police documents about the investigation of Wyatt’s death.

Those documents proved helpful in preparing the amended complaint, Kiss stated.

Kiss said attorneys have been receiving information about bullying all along, but people willing to come forward increased after the judge’s initial dismissal of the lawsuit.

The lawsuit also cited a May 25, 2017, school board meeting in which a mother related that her daughter had been bullied at school and the mother decided to “take matters into her own hands.”

The mother reported that a classroom teacher asked her students to give her daughter “a round of applause for an ‘Oscar winning performance'” after a meltdown.

She received a call from her daughter who was having an anxiety attack.

When the mother went to the school, the student

wasn’t immediately located.

After 20 minutes, she was found in a restroom.

The teacher’s response, according to the lawsuit, was: “What? Are you gonna call mommy every time you have an issue?’

District personnel informed the parent they couldn’t discuss any punishment that might have been meted out to the alleged bully.

It was also noted that the school board hired a Pittsburgh attorney at its May 25, 2017, meeting to review AASD’s policies and procedures.

As of April 18, 2018, a board member reported the recommendations by the attorney were in a binder collecting dust in the directors’ board room, according to the lawsuit.

It contended the staff of the school district is poorly trained, citing the fact the even some top administrators did not know, when questioned, what Title IX was, and it stated, “defendant’s staff remains so poorly trained that those staff did not believe and did not make any effort to quickly respond to a student screaming for help in what was threatened to be an active shooter situation, forcing the student to undertake heroic actions to ensure a true tragedy did not occur.”

The incidents of bullying were covered up “through a culture of silence,” the lawsuit added.

Worling was not available for comment Thursday, but Altoona Police Chief Janice Freehling said the police investigation has been concluded.

No arrests were made, she stated.

The Mirror was unable to reach school district attorneys Barber or Charles E. Haddick Jr. of Camp Hill.