Hardyston family prepares to sue middle school

| 21 Feb 2012 | 10:55

    HARDYSTON-The parents of a 13-year-old township youth have begun legal proceedings against the Hardyston Township Board of Education and the parents of three Hardyston Middle School students and filed juvenile delinquency charges against two middle-school students because of what the parents say was an unchecked pattern of bullying that physically and emotionally damaged their son. The parents, John and Sue Faber, are asking the board to pay tuition at Northwest Christian, the school their 13-year-old son, Michael, transferred to after he suffered a concussion and hearing loss when, they say, another student slammed a locker door on Michael's head. They are also asking, according to their attorney, Edward G. Engelhart, "for whatever damages they suffered. In addition to the physical injuries, there really are psychological injuries, as well." The attorney's letter, delivered on Christmas Eve, gave all parties ten business days to discuss a settlement. If none were forthcoming, Engelhart said he would file the lawsuit. Tuesday, he said that at the request of the board of education, he had extended the deadline to give the board an opportunity to investigate the Fabers' claims. But, he said, "I will give them a very limited window of opportunity to investigate. This has been ongoing for several months, but I do recognize that there are some members of the board who would not be familiar with it." A spokesperson for the board of education declined to discuss the issue, saying, "The board at this time has no comment." Alex Roney, the vice-principal at Hardyston Middle School, did not return a phone call seeking comment. The mothers of the two youths charged with assault also declined to comment. (Because the case involves juvenile delinquency charges, The Advertiser-News is withholding the names of all the juveniles and their families.) The family of the third youth could not be contacted. The silence of all defendants named in the case leave the Fabers and their attorney as the only source of information. The incident with the locker, the Fabers say, was the last in a series of incidents that began when Michael first entered Hardyston schools. But, they said, until the end of the 2003-2004 school year, the bullying had been verbal, not physical. During the summer, they allege, one of his tormentors pushed him down at a Boy Scout camp, causing Michael to hit his head on a rock and damaging his ear. They also claim that the youth told Michael that he was going to have another youth attack Michael with a knife during a camping trip. The juvenile charges, filed in the family division of Superior Court in Newton, relate to the threat, the shoving incident and the episode with the locker door. Once school began in September, the Fabers say, the number and seriousness of the attacks on their son escalated. They charge that school officials failed to halt the abuse and, in fact, did not punish anyone for the locker incident. According to the Fabers, Michael, the eldest of five children, was born with a condition that caused fluid to build up behind his eardrums, damaging his hearing. "He is also very small," said Sue Faber. His slight build and the fact that he often had to put cotton balls in his ears to absorb drainage made him a target of verbal taunts, Sue Faber says. He has undergone surgical procedures to implant tubes in his ears to allow the fluid to drain. After a new type of tube was implanted in 1997, Sue Faber said, his hearing was so improved, "He could hear the snow falling." But after his head was slammed in the locker, she continued, he experienced a 40-decibel loss in hearing and may have to undergo new surgery. According to a letter announcing their intention to sue, "From September 2004 until he ws forced to leave Hardyston Middle School, Michael was subjected to repeated bullying by certain students at the school. Mr. and Mrs. Faber had numerous conversations and meetings with Mr. Alex Roney, the vice principal, regarding the conduct of three students . . .The Fabers' concerns were greatly downplayed by Mr. Roney and Ms. Elizabeth Burdzy, the school nurse." The initial harassment, the letter says, were incidents in which a boy would step on the back of Michael's shoe, which is called giving someone a "flat." Later, the Fabers say, Michael was kicked in gym class and knocked to the floor, giving him a bloody knee. One of the youths named in the letter "was also pushing, shoving and harassing Michael." The complaint says that Roney spoke to the three youths, one of whom eventually wrote a letter of apology to Michael. Roney, the Fabers say, also warned the youths. But the incidents continued. On Sept. 27, the Fabers say, the three youths shoved Michael "through the gymnasiums metal doors and into a brick wall," causing an injury to his arm. The next day, they say, the youths "were still hurting and harassing him repeatedly by giving him ‘flats' and tripping him, calling him names and screaming in his face." Sue Faber says that when she went to Roney, the administrator says "He wanted Michael ‘to work on being more assertive.' He stated that she was ‘overbearing' for not allowing Michael to fight his own battles. Mr. Roney further went on to say that he believed in ‘old school' methods where boys would just ‘duke it out.'" The letter lists several more alleged incidents before the one that caused Michael's concussion. On Oct. 22, Engelhart wrote, "the bullying finally resulted in serious bodily injury to Michael. While he was opening his locker, [a youth] came running by and slammed the locker door on Michael's head with enough force to knock Michael unconscious." The Fabers say that Michael came home dizzy and with a limp on his head, prompting Sue Faber, who is an EMT with the Hardyston rescue squad, to take him to the emergency room at St. Clare's Hospital in Sussex. They say he was diagnosed with a concussion and told to rest at home for two to four weeks. The Fabers claim that both Roney and Burdzy, the school nurse, rejected a note and phone call from their pediatrician testifying to Michael's injuries. After more than a week at home, Engelhart's letter says, Michael, afraid that he would have to return to the school, "attempted to inflict harm on himself" and threatened to jump out of the car if Sue Faber tried to drive him to school. She said her son is still under the care of a psychologist. The Fabers subsequently withdrew Michael and his sister, Debra, from Hardyston Middle School and enrolled them in Northwest Christian in Hampton, where tuition is "nearly $8,200 per year." Sue Faber said her son is thriving academically at the new school, but "he's still afraid to go outside."