Amended lawsuit against Altoona Area School District filed in court

Passarello says papers show ‘specific instances of bullying,’ eyewitness accounts

The attorney representing the estate of an Altoona Area Junior High School student who last year took his life allegedly because of bullying argues in court papers filed late Wednesday that he has presented enough evidence that will allow the family’s lawsuit against the local school district to move forward.

The attorney, Steven P. Passarello of Altoona, stated the school district last week asked dismissal of his lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court in Johnstown because it was vague — a similar argument that the district used to win the dismissal of the initial complaint in July.

But, Passarello filed an amended lawsuit in mid-August, which, he insists, has met requirements laid down by U.S. District Judge Kim R. Gibson for further legal action.

The amended lawsuit, he said, contains “specific instances of bullying” that involved victims other than 12-year-old Wyatt Lansberry, who in a note blamed bullying as the reason for his death on May 18, 2017.

“It gives eyewitness accounts” of bullying that occurred against young Wyatt and other students, Passarello said.

The plethora of individual accounts of bullying in the Junior High School “are neither devoid of any specificity or are they devoid of knowledge by AASD (as the school district claimed),” Passarello relates in his new filing.

In the new complaint, Passarello reported instances in which a student was picked on because he supposedly was gay.

A student reported being harassed on three occasions and reported the incidents to a teacher, again with no intervention by district officials.

Another student was allegedly knocked unconscious during a bullying incident while a student reported she was improperly touched on a regular basis by a male student.

The report also decribed an incident in which a gun was used to intimidate a group of students.

He said the district’s response to his amended lawsuit “unbelievably” was to contend once again it was too vague.

The amended lawsuit claims the school district has failed to address bullying in the junior high school, has failed to enforce its own anti-bullying policies and has acted with “deliberate indifference,” to constitutional rights of not only Wyatt Lansberry, the son of Marc Lansberry, the executor of his estate, but to other student victims as well.

The amended lawsuit contends the Altoona Area School District displayed a pattern “of absolutely ignoring a widespread bullying epidemic within its walls,” Passarello charges.

He states the complaint “alleges a wider bullying problem within the Altoona Area School district that absolutely put them on notice that the constitutional rights of its students were being violated.”

The need for training staff within the school district on how to address bullying “was so likely to result in constitutional violations that AASD could reasonably been said to have been deliberately indifferent to the need,” the lawsuit maintains.

Passarello has also asked that survival and wrongful death claims under state law be permitted to continue.

For instance, the school code required that red boxes be put on the walls outside of the offices of the guidance counselors and principal’s offices so possible victims of harassment and bullying could drop off written complaints.

There were no such boxes available when Wyatt was in school, according to the lawsuit.

After Wyatt’s death, the school board hired a Pittsburgh attorney to prepare a report and make recommendations addressing the bullying problem.

The lawsuit contends that the payment of “an extraordinary amount of money” for such a study demonstrated the school district knew there was a bullying problem, but it noted that the recommendations in the report have yet to be implemented.

“This clearly shows that the AASD doesn’t care about this bullying problem and is deliberately indifferent to (bullying),” Passarello states.

In its petition to dismiss last week, the school district contended the lawsuit failed to show a pattern of bullying, pointing out that the instances cited by Passarello do not involve similar individuals, conduct, school employee or officials, and that instances cited were dissimilar to what occurred to Wyatt.

It also stated no constitutional violation on the part of any AASD employee has been shown to substantiate the deliberate indifference claim.

As a next step, Judge Gibson must decide if the lawsuit may move forward.