Federal Suit Filed Against Mashpee School Officials, Town

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By: Elsa H. Partan
Published: 11/25/11

The family of the underage victim of a 2008 indecent assault by former Mashpee paraprofessional and coach Stephen J. Weixler is suing Mr. Weixler, the Town of Mashpee, the Mashpee School Committee, and five school officials.

The parents of the victim, who are identified only as Jane and John Doe, filed the suit in US District Court in Boston on the grounds that their daughter’s civil rights were violated because she was denied equal educational opportunity. In 12 separate counts, they allege that school employees failed to provide special education services when their daughter began having problems in school, as well as that the incident was a violation of the Equal Rights Amendment of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.

For the first time, the lawsuit alleges that school employees knew Mr. Weixler had inappropriate contact with other students months before the school system fired him. A supervisor questioned Mr. Weixler in February 2008, several months before the assault took place, but was satisfied when he denied the allegations, the complaint states. Mr. Weixler served five months in prison for the crime and is on probation until May.

The status of a previous case filed with the state Bureau of Special Education Appeals has not been made public. A hearing was scheduled for September 12, but the hearing officer has not yet released a ruling.

The suit was filed in the United States District Court in Boston on September 9, and defendants were served with the summons on November 12. The defendants have not yet filed a response to the complaint.

The latest complaint alleges that the experience caused the victim to suffer severe emotional trauma—“PTSD, bipolar, poly-substance abuse with probably emerging borderline personality disorder”—that resulted in at least two hospitalizations.

The suit describes a chain of events that ultimately led the Mashpee Public Schools to place the victim in a residential therapeutic school at the urging of the victim’s parents. School officials turned down that request twice previously, according to the suit. The victim’s parents have since requested to have their daughter moved to another school.

Mr. Weixler “used his position of trust as soccer coach and paraprofessional” and his knowledge that she was emotionally vulnerable as a result of a prior family tragedy to “groom” the girl to be a victim of sexual abuse, the suit states.

Susan M. Weixler, Mr. Weixler’s mother, said in a phone interview on Wednesday that there are many allegations in the suit that are false. Ms. Weixler has said in previous interviews with the Enterprise that she was proud of her son for telling the truth when police questioned him. She said this week that her son has already paid the debt for the crime he committed.

“We think Stephen has paid a high price,” she said.

The suit argues that Mr. Weixler was given preferential treatment in the “screening, hiring, evaluation, supervision and investigation,” because his mother is an employee at Mashpee Public Schools. Ms. Weixler is an administrative assistant at Kenneth C. Coombs School and plans to retire this year.

Ms. Weixler said she never urged any school official to hire her son.

“They came to him,” she said. “I don’t have that much influence.”

The central argument in the lawsuit is that the schools failed to identify the victim as a child in need of special education services, a similar argument to the one made in the state Bureau of Special Education Appeals case.

According to the suit, the assault took place in the November 2008, when the victim was 14. Media outlets, including the Enterprise, reported when the criminal case was in the courts that the assault happened in September 2008.

At the time of the assault, Mr. Weixler was an assistant coach for the Mashpee High School soccer team, through which he had contact with the victim. The assault was not reported to school officials until March 2009. In those intervening months, the victim had emotional outbursts, difficulty completing assignments, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and self-injurious behavior, according to the complaint.

School employees, including former special education director Carla R. Thomas and guidance counselor Patricia Farrell, should have requested an evaluation to assess “the cause of the escalating signs of trauma,” the lawsuit says.

Ms. Thomas and Ms. Farrell are defendants in the suit, in addition to Jane A. Day, who was then assistant principal of Mashpee High School; Alan R. Winrow, who was principal at the time; and Superintendent Ann M. Bradshaw. The school officials are being sued individually and in their capacities as school employees, the suit says.

According to the complaint, in February 2009, the victim’s parents met with Mr. Winrow, Ms. Day, and a probation officer from the Barnstable County Juvenile Court Department. The school officials did not suggest a course of special education but instead recommended that the juvenile court intervene, according to the suit. The victim is known as Jill Doe in the document.

“During this period, Jill remained enrolled in regular education classes, despite the fact that her emotional well-being continued to deteriorate, her grades declined and she could not access her classes,” the suit says. “Instead, Jill sat in the guidance office repeatedly, was frequently truant, and demonstrated emotional outbursts in school.”

The suit also addresses a new allegation—that school officials were warned about Mr. Weixler’s behavior before the assault took place.

In February 2008, an unnamed individual reported to “supervisory personnel” in the school system that Mr. Weixler was engaged in “inappropriate and/or sexual conduct with another minor, who was a student at Mashpee Schools,” the suit says.

“Upon information and belief, Weixler’s supervisor interviewed only Weixler, who denied the aforementioned conduct. The supervisor concluded that no further investigation was necessary solely on the basis that ‘Weixler’s body language [and] tone of voice [indicated] he is telling the truth,’ ” the document states.

The schools got another warning in January 2009, the suit says. An employee of the Boys & Girls Club reported to school officials “that students had reported to him that Weixler was engaged in an inappropriate sexual relationship with one or more minor students, other than Jill, at Mashpee High School,” according to the complaint.

“Despite being put on notice on at least one prior occasion of Weixler’s criminal conduct, the defendants continued to fail to take reasonable steps to investigate and remedy Weixler’s conduct and remove him from the school,” the suit says.

Mr. Weixler was placed on administrative leave in March 2009 after school officials were informed that he had sent inappropriate text messages to students and purchased alcohol for them. Three days later the victim’s family reported the assault to school officials and police, and soon after that he was fired, according to the complaint.

In December 2009, Mr. Weixler pleaded guilty in Barnstable Superior Court to one count of indecent assault and battery on a person 14 or older, in addition to a charge of disseminating harmful material to a minor and three counts of buying alcohol for minors.

The victim suffered harassment at school after the allegations became public, according to the suit. The schools consulted with Children’s Cove, an advocacy organization for child victims of sexual abuse, but then ignored the organization’s recommendations, the suit says. Instead of holding small group discussions, as Children’s Cove suggested, Mashpee held a schoolwide assembly.

“After the assembly, students continued to speculate as to Jill’s identity as the victim, and began to bully, harass, taunt and criticize Jill within the school and on social media networks,” the suit says.

The victim continued to have emotional and behavioral problems, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and was eventually hospitalized. In May 2010, the schools “determined for the first time that Jill was eligible to receive special education and related services,” the suit says. Because of the 14-month delay between the assault and the victim’s full-time placement in a residential school, the schools failed to provide a “free appropriate public education.”

Neither the defendants nor the plaintiffs, including their Connecticut-based attorney, had any comment. Town Manager Joyce M. Mason directed the Enterprise to John Cronin, an attorney appointed by the Town of Mashpee’s insurance agency. Mr. Cronin did not return a phone message from the Enterprise.

Once the defendants have received a copy of the complaint, they have 21 days to respond to the summons, according to a clerk for the US District Court for the District of Massachusetts.

A presentment letter, an initial step in the legal process warning defendants of the possibility of being sued, was served to the town, the school committee, and the school district in January 2008.

2 Responses to "Federal Suit Filed Against Mashpee School Officials, Town"

  1. Welcome to the world of public school special education. This is not the first time I have heard of such an outrage, and I know it won't be the last. Special education laws are ignored by school districts and are not enforced by the state or federal government (yes, I have proof). We need a full scale parental revolt. Nothing short of that will have an impact. Ellen Chambers Special Education Activist

  2. Very sad. I agree with Ellen Chambers. Stories of children being denied the special education services they need happen over and over and over and nothing ever changes. There is no enforcement, therefore there are no checks and balances, and no impetus for school districts to do better by our children. For this child, and this school district, lawsuits *might* provide the impetus for the school committee culture to change, at least for as long as these school committee members stay in the system. Soon enough, it will be back to business as usual. Unless... Are you willing to demonstrate? Are you willing to take time away from your family to write letters? To visit your legislators? Are you willing to stop worrying about your personal privacy and put yourself "out there"? To talk to anyone who will listen about the lack of accountability at the local, state and federal levels? If so, please go to www.SPEDWatch.org and join us. We need to be strong, and stop this from continuing on for more generations... Marion King, Foxboro, parent of a student with special needs, SPEDWatch member

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