The Herald Bulletin

October 15, 2013

Jury awards $50,000 in Pendleton Heights bullying case

By Jack Molitor
The Herald Bulletin


A six-person jury awarded the victim of extreme bullying at Pendleton Heights High School $50,000 in damages Tuesday in Madison Circuit Court 3.

The jury decided in favor of the woman and her family after they brought a tort claim against South Madison Community School Corp. The award followed a three-day civil trial. The former Pendleton Heights High School student claimed that the school and the school district mishandled, or neglected to handle, the fallout from a 2008 incident.

According to court documents, when the woman, who was 15 years old at the time, went to school on March 11, 2008, she found there were pictures posted around the school that had been edited with computer software showing her in a sexually suggestive manner. The fliers also included her real phone number.

The case files indicate school officials determined who the culprit was and immediately suspended him from school, though the victim's family said he was only transferred to another school. He was also charged as a minor for distribution of child pornography and child exploitation and was later placed on juvenile detention.

According to case documents, South Madison denied negligence and contended it acted with reasonable care in the matter.

The woman and her family claimed that South Madison Community School Corp. was negligent in its handling of the matter, that proper counseling wasn't offered to the victim after the incident and that the family struggled to recover.

"I'm glad they found them liable for what happened," the victim said after the Tuesday hearing.

Her mother added that she's glad they fought for "everyone else at Pendleton." The family said they believe bullying is still a problem at the school, and the school district just recently implemented training for teachers on how to handle bullying.

"I think a lot of the problem was the school was unwilling to admit to what they hadn't done, and they went after her character," said the victim's father. "We're happy she's been vindicated."

The decision comes on the heels of a state law passed this year that requires school districts to adopt plans with specific timetables for reporting bullying, reporting methods, and a detailed plan of action once bullying is reported, according to an Associated Press report.

Attorney Steven Smith, who represented the victim in the case, asked the jury to accept an amount of $80,000. Eric Brodt, who represented South Madison, countered with an amount of $40,000. After about three hours of deliberation, the jury agreed on $50,000.

"We would've liked more, but we're pleased with the win and it's fair," Smith said. "What I hope is that it will help not only the family but help the other students at Pendleton Heights."

Smith said he thought the school mishandled the incident from the very beginning, when they sent the victim back to class after she reported the incident.

In a post-trial meeting with the attorneys, jurors said they found testimonies from several school officials to be inconsistent, which helped guide them to their decision. One juror said he felt the school corporation only mishandled the very beginning of the incident, and not during the following months.

One key witness on Oct. 8 was Dr. Pamela Porter, an expert in post-traumatic stress disorder who counseled the victim and her family after the incident. Porter said the woman now suffers symptoms of PTSD. The victim reported having symptoms of a panic attack the day of the incident, Porter said, and still has difficulty interacting with people without feeling anxious.

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