CORAL SPRINGS — The mother of a middle school student who attempted suicide after reporting to school officials repeated incidents of alleged threats, bullying and racially charged insults has filed a negligence and hate crimes lawsuit against the Broward County School District.
Randi Vanderheyden filed the lawsuit on Oct. 28 —during the last week of National Anti-Bullying Month —on behalf of her 13-year-old daughter who attended Ramblewood Middle School in Coral Springs.
“These classes were out of control,” Vanderheyden said in an interview. “I don’t think the teacher ever paid attention to what was going on and never tried to stop any of it.”
Christina “Tina” Recchi, principal of the top-rated “A” school, disagreed.
“This was dealt with thoroughly. Many hours were spent dealing with the student and parents,” she said in an e-mail.
Broward County Public Schools spokeswoman Nadine Drew said the matter was being investigated by the Johns Eastern Company, a school district third party administrator. “We are not in a position to provide facts pertaining to this case while our investigation is being conducted,” Drew said.
Johns Eastern Company, a Lakewood Ranch, Fla., claims adjuster will evaluate the lawsuit and make a recommendation to school district officials. The case has been assigned to Broward Circuit Court Judge Dale Ross, who has not scheduled hearings in the case.
Vanderheyden said the kids who tormented her daughter are black.
According to her lawsuit, the bullying began around January, when they repeatedly called her daughter names and often used racial slurs while threatening her. The lawsuit alleges several incidents of bullying and at least one physical incident against the girl.
Her husband, who is a police officer with a Miami-Dade County city, met regarding the issue with the Coral Springs police officer who serves as Ramblewood Middle’s resource officer.
“We wanted to file a battery report with the police but the resource officer told us it was out of his hands,” Randi Vanderheyden said.
The students are accused of repeatedly calling the girl names like “white slut” and “white (expletive deleted)” all in front of teachers and other students. This went on continuously, even during lunch hour, she said.
The victim reported the incidents to her parents who met several times with the school’s principal, assistant principal, and guidance counselor.
They asked that the accused students be transferred to a different classroom or school but that did not happen. They were told their daughter needed “thicker skin” and school officials raised the question of whether their daughter might have caused the bullying.
“One of them did get a three-day suspension but when he returned to school, the harassment got even worse,” Vandeheyden said.
She said her daughter’s personality began to change and she became withdrawn and suffered from depression. She became disobedient at home and began talking about committing suicide. In May, she tried to hang herself in her bedroom.
“It was really quiet in her room and when we went to check on her, she was trying to hang herself,” Vandeheyden said. “She was rushed to the hospital.”
The Vanderheydens were told they should transfer their child to another school, which they did. When they learned the district would not provide transportation, they had to withdraw her from that school. The girl is now enrolled in Connections Academy, a virtual school, taking classes from home using a computer. She is also undergoing counseling and psychiatric treatment.
In the lawsuit, attorneys Reginald J. Clyne and Cherri-Ann Giannell, accuse school officials of failing to protect the child or take corrective action to stop the alleged abuse.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages for emotional distress, psychological injuries and continuing medical expenses.
Florida’s anti-bullying law, the “Jeffrey Johnston Stand Up for All Students Act,” requires, among other things, that all Florida schools adopt anti-bullying policies and provide training to prevent it and enforce those policies. Annual reports must be submitted to the Florida Department of Education on bullying statistics; failure to do so could put a school’s state funding at risk.
The law is named after a 15-year-old student who was repeatedly bullied, including over the Internet, despite repeated reports to school officials. When no action was taken, the boy committed suicide in 2005. His mother, Debbie Johnston, a school teacher, worked with then governors Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist and state Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff to get the legislation enacted into law in 2008.
“State law requires the schools to take action,” Johnston said, when told of the lawsuit. “This is sad but all too common. The law requires each school to have a trained anti-bullying designee to deal with these types of incidents. It never should have gone this far.”
Johnston said many schools are not in compliance with the anti-bullying statute. She blames it in on a lack of funding for training and lax oversight by the state.
“The Department of Education is supposed to oversee and enforce the law but that is not happening,” Johnston said. “Students will deal with bullying in some manner. It may be self-harming activities like suicide, substance abuse, violence or other acts.”
***Pictured above is Randi Vanderheyden. Below is the late Jeffrey Johnston and his mother Debbie Johnston.