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December 23. 2012 7:09PM

Superior Court upholds part of anti-bully suit against Manchester School District

MANCHESTER - A Hillsborough County Superior Court judge has upheld part of a lawsuit against the school district brought by the mother of a middle school student who, in a widely publicized incident nearly two years ago, was punched in the face by another student.

The suit was brought by Danielle Gauthier, the mother of the girl, Morgan Graveline, against the Manchester School District.

In a ruling earlier this month, the judge found that the principal of McLaughlin Middle School failed in his duty to ensure the safety of Graveline by not telling her mother about bullying incidents that preceded the altercation in the cafeteria. The punch resulted in Graveline's two front teeth being jarred loose.

The ruling may mark the first time such a case has been allowed to proceed since the state passed its anti-bullying law in 2010.

The judge did grant the district's motion to dismiss another charge in the case, that the principal did not do enough to prevent the attack in the cafeteria.

Gauthier's attorney, BJ Branch, said that prior to the cafeteria incident, Graveline was punched on a school bus by a friend of the person who allegedly attacked her in the cafeteria. The attack was severe enough that the bus driver made a report, in writing, to school leaders. That event was followed by harassing and vulgar Facebook messages from the boys to Graveline.

However, school principal Barry Albert never told Graveline's mother about the incidents, contrary to the district's anti-bullying policy, which required parents of alleged victims and perpetrators of bullying to be informed "within 48 hours" of the incident, said Branch. Manchester passed its policy in response to the state anti-bullying law, which required all districts to enact policies based on a common model.

"The school district took that information (about the bus incident) and never brought it the attention of the parent and left it to a 13-year-old to make the right decision, which is rarely a good move," Branch said. "I think the whole purpose of the statute is to at least make sure the parents are in the loop. The parent could have kept the kid at home until this gets straightened out."

Manchester Superintendent Thomas Brennan did not return a call for comment.

Among the evidence Branch cited in the case was the report from the school bus driver and copies of the Facebook messages.

Branch said Gauthier is seeking compensation for dental and medical bills and for her daughter's emotional suffering.

The Feb. 15, 2011, incident, in which Graveline was punched in the cafeteria, garnered wide news media attention, with Gauthier and Graveline appearing in television and newspaper interviews.

Graveline's alleged tormentors, who are refugees from Kenya, gave their own interviews with the New Hampshire Union Leader, in which they claimed that they were the victims of harassment on the part of Graveline.

Brennan had said in a TV interview at the time that he believed the incident in the cafeteria did not qualify as bullying. He also issued a statement that the district "has taken all necessary steps to prevent bullying in our schools and to ensure that a safe and secure learning environment is being provided to all of our students."

Branch said he was surprised that the district did not agree to settle the matter outside of court, and he said he still hoped officials would be willing to talk following the latest ruling.

"I'm confident we could at least narrow the dispute, if not resolve it completely," he said. "My client feels strongly that schools should error on the side of calling parents."

A trial is expected to be scheduled beyond the spring of 2013.

tsiefer@unionleader.com

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