March 29, 2020

School board settles suit over autistic child> Bangor department to pay $1,500 to parents who claim girl’s civil rights were violated

BANGOR — The city’s school committee agreed Monday to pay up to $1,500 to the parents of an autistic child to settle a lawsuit they filed against the school department last summer.

Committee members voted to pay the sum as a “nuisance fee” rather than incur further legal fees to fight a case they believe was without merit.

“I believe strongly that the school department acted in an appropriate and professional manner at all times regarding plans for the education of [David and Christine] Szewczyk’s daughter and that, if this case were ultimately tried in court, the action of school department personnel would be conclusively upheld,” said Phyllis Shubert, vice chairwoman of the committee.

“We are all aware, however, that litigation is an expensive proposition and, given the fact that the case can now apparently be dismissed with a relatively modest payment, I believe that this settlement is the most prudent way in which to preserve public resources.”

Superintendent Jim Doughty said it was his understanding that the Maine Department of Education, which also was named in the suit, would contribute a similar amount of money.

David and Christine Szewczyk filed suit last summer claiming the Bangor School Department and the Maine Department of Education, among others, violated the civil rights of their 5-year-old daughter by determining that the autistic girl be placed in a regular kindergarten classroom at the Abraham Lincoln School. An education technician would have worked full time with the girl. The state Education Department upheld that decision.

Instead, the Szewczyks said in their lawsuit, the school department should pay for the girl to continue to attend a private nursery school in Milford until the suit was resolved. They also sought attorney’s fees and unspecified actual and punitive damages.

Under state law, children are not required to attend school until they are 7 years old, but funding for special education services provided by Child Development Services stops when a child turns 5.

The family filed suit in U.S. District Court in Bangor weeks before the start of the 1997 school year. When school started in September, the girl remained at the Green House Nursery School, although Bangor had already hired personnel to accommodate her in the public school system.

Shortly after the suit was filed, the family dropped their request for an injunction to keep their daughter out of the Bangor school and to require the school department to pay for her education at Green House, where she remains. They still sought financial compensation from the state and city school departments, and the case was scheduled to go to trial in April.

In a letter to school department attorneys last month, the Szewczyks indicated they would accept $2,997.56 to settle their claims.

A message left for David Szewczyk, an attorney who handled the case along with co-counsel William Macdonald, was not returned.

After a half-hour executive session, seven of the eight school committee members decided to accept the advice of their attorney and agree to the settlement offer. Committee member Suzanne Cox abstained from the vote because her husband is related to the Szewczyks.

“If it was my money, I wouldn’t settle,” said committee member Susan Carlisle. But, she said, paying the modest amount was the most economical way to handle what she termed a “nuisance suit.”

“It really bothers me a lot to put our scarce resources into this kind of settlement, no matter how small the amount,” said committee chairwoman Martha Newman. But, she said, “I feel I have no choice but to do this.”

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