Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Parents vs. OUSD Trial Ends

UPDATED INFORMATION:
As court convened Thursday morning in the case of Luttrull vs. OUSD, it just as quickly closed when plaintiffs withdrew their case.
The long-standing lawsuit alleged that San Antonio Elementary School teacher Linda McMichael retaliated against three fifth-grade girls after their parents raised objections against teaching materials they thought inappropriate for their daughters.
The complete story will be posted online later today and in print Friday.




School district accused of neglect for not protecting students after complaints about book

By Daryl Kelley
A Superior Court jury begins hearing today a negligence claim against an Ojai public school teacher and her superiors, whom two students say retaliated against them after their parents complained about profanity and sexual content in a book assigned to fifth-graders to discourage bullying.
An attorney for Jeff and Rosalyn Luttrull and Betty Craven, parents of the two former San Antonio School students, is set to open arguments this morning, with lawyers for the Ojai Unified School District to follow.
The trial to settle a 2005 lawsuit is expected to last at least a week. The original suit has been reduced by a series of judges in federal and state courts from nine counts to one remaining negligence claim, which a jury will decide.
The negligence claim has been limited, since a judge ruled last week that plaintiffs could not present evidence that the district was negligent in allowing the book in the classroom, but only that educators retaliated against the girls because of their parents’ complaints.
The plaintiffs are seeking monetary damages for the girls’ “extreme emotional distress, both of whom having been exposed to (the) egregiously improper book in the first place, and then as a result of the harassment and retaliation they experienced when their parents dared complain.”
The Luttrulls also seek payment for the mounting cost of their children’s education, since all four moved to private schools after the book controversy led to a confrontation with the district.
District officials have said insurance is paying its legal bill for the case, but refused to disclose the size of the bill.
The suit alleges that district employees failed to maintain a safe environment at school for the girls after their parents complained about the book and, in fact, allowed retaliation against the girls. The district maintains that the controversy surrounding the book was handled quickly and professionally, and that only the parents’ “over the top” response to the issue caused any lasting trouble.
Testimony “will show that the teacher and administrators did not engage in any wrongdoing,” writes attorney Jonathan Light in a pre-trial summary. “On the contrary, the defendants immediately ceased use of the book, responded to the parents’ concerns, and pro-actively set up a new policy and regulations to deal with the use of controversial material as well as programs to deal with bullying.
“The evidence will firmly establish it was the parents’ bullying and inappropriate efforts to remove (teacher Linda) McMichael from the classroom, or in the alternative, ‘make the school district pay,’ that brings this case before the court and jury.”
Plaintiffs’ attorney Cathy Elliott Jones would not comment on the case, but in a pre-trial summary she wrote that the two girls endured a “campaign of terror” by veteran teacher McMichael and begged to leave the tiny East End elementary school.
McMichael, who has taught at San Antonio for 25 years, is a defendant in the suit, as are school principal John LeSuer, district superintendent Tim Baird and the district.
Jones notes in her written summary that the book — “Please Stop Laughing at Me,” an autobiographical account of teen-age bullying by Jodee Blanco — was withdrawn by the district once the parents complained.
“But by blaming (the girls) and their parents for the controversy … Baird actively fostered an environment of hostility directed at (the girls),” Jones wrote. “Baird could have taken preventative measures to head off the recriminations, retaliation and hostility toward (the girls) and to prevent Ms. McMichael from harming (them), but failed to do so.
“The school board at first refused to hear the complaints from the parents … then talked over them and allowed other speakers to belittle them at two meetings,” Jones wrote. “Group hysteria began to foster.”
But Light said he’s confident the school district will prevail.
“The evidence at trial will not support a conclusion that defendants engaged in any wrongdoing,” he wrote. “Defendants timely and appropriately addressed plaintiffs’ parents’ concerns and remedied any issues that arose.”
In court documents, the girls’ parents have cited several incidents they say show the district’s indifference to the girls’ situation, and, in fact, retaliation against them.
After Craven, the Luttrulls and other parents complained about explicit language and sexual situations in the anti-bullying book assigned to girls in McMichael’s fifth-grade class, the teacher allegedly:
• Told the two girls they had “social problems” and would grow up to have “bad friends” if they didn’t change;
• Gave the girls an extra writing assignment over the weekend after withdrawal of the book;
• Improperly allowed two parents who supported her to come into the classroom as visitors;
• Improperly graded an assignment by a third girl in her class whose mother had also complained about the book;
• Allowed a student to read a “current event” about the book controversy in class and make negative comments about the girls’ parents.
The suit also alleges that another San Antonio teacher publicly discussed the controversy with McMichael in front of one of the girls and her friends, and called her father “a jerk.” And that a parent of a former San Antonio student brought a newspaper with a letter supporting McMichael into class during school and declared her support for the teacher in front of students.
In addition, the suit maintains that principal LeSuer encouraged parents to wear buttons that said “Books Yes, Bullies No” to a school event.
Craven and Jeff Luttrull attended the event with his three children who still attended the school, the suit says. “They were met on school (sic) by an organized gang of teachers, staff, parents, children and members of the general public with buttons that read ‘Books Not Bullies,’ and who were circulating a ‘Support Ms. McMichael’ petition. Defendants LeSuer and Baird each knew in advance about the organized plan.”
Light maintains that the plaintiffs claims are simply not true or are misrepresentations of the facts. The evidence is “underwhelming,” he writes.
For example, he wrote, McMichael is one of the district’s most respected teachers and she assigned the anti-bullying book because of bickering among girls in her fifth-grade class, notified all parents of the assignment and asked them to read the book with their children. Neither the Luttrulls nor Craven read the book until their children complained about its content, he said.
Then, after quickly meeting with the parents in late March 2005, McMichael immediately withdrew it. As for the extra weekend writing assignment, that was in response to a lunchtime argument among girls, he said. McMichael asked them to write an essay explaining their problem and how it could be resolved, a common practice among good teachers.
Yet, Craven called LeSuer to complain that McMichael had been critical of the girls and was punishing them with the writing assignment. The teacher and the principal then met with the girls, Light writes, to explain the assignment was a way to work out their problems, not a punishment.
“The girls agreed,” the lawyer writes, “but the (girls’) parents rushed to the school that day to complain further.”
Two days later, Baird, LeSuer and McMichael all met with concerned parents for two hours, Light says. Baird removed the book from use by the district, pledged to set policy to guide teachers on the use of sensitive materials and to obtain written permission from parents before using such materials.
“At this point, Baird believed the controversy had ended, as it well should have,” Light writes. “And, for nearly three weeks, matters were calm and normal at San Antonio.”
Then, the girls’ parents asked for McMichael’s removal from her classroom. “In fact, Jeff Luttrull told another parent that if the school district did not fire McMichael, he would ‘sue the district and make them pay,’’’ according to Light’s pre-trial brief.
Even the controversy about use of the anti-bullying book was overblown, he said. The same book had been used very effectively by McMichael and another teacher with fifth- and sixth-grade students the previous year, he said.
But Light said that defendants do “concede that small portions of the book are inappropriate for fifth-grade girls, but the overwhelming majority of the book has rich material dealing with the girls’ bullying issue.”
But the girls’ attorney writes that it was the district and its employees who forced the issue by allowing retaliation, including a student’s so-called ‘’current event’’ on the controversy in McMichael’s class in which the parents were accused of bullying the teacher.
The girls “felt scared after being publicly singled out by the ‘current event,’” according to Jones’ brief, “and begged not to return to San Antonio School.”
The Luttrulls took their daughter out of school and subsequently placed her in a private school. Craven moved her daughter to a charter school within the district. The girl is now attending a public middle school.
Hearing the case is Judge Henry Walsh in Department 42 of the county courthouse in Ventura. Opening arguments are set to begin today at 9:30 a.m.

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

mzI am SO OVER Cathy Elliot Jones.

Anonymous said...

First day of trial indicates kathy elliot Jones will do anything for money...she was scattered, overly dramatic, incomprehensible and disorganized in her arguments. She just proved this whole trial is a farce. As a taxpayer i really really resent having to pay for her spurious lawsuits. These young girls and Mrs. McMichael are the victims of the girl's parent's egos and desire for revenge and an unscrupulous lawyer's willingness to try a case that never should have come into court.

James Hatch said...

The article says that the district claims "insurance is paying for the defense." All of it? Is their a certain amount that the district has to pay?

At a time when the school district stands to lose $2 million,per a recent article, I would sure like to know if any school funds are going towards the cost of this defense or any judgment if it gets that far.

Fiscal accountability and responsibility are the cornerstone to James Hatch's foundation.

Let's face it, lawsuits cost money. By the time it has gone back and forth from state to federal court and then to trial, it will cost alot of money.

If the district pays a cent on this case, the taxpayers need to know.

There was a recent article in the Star where attorneys from L.A. charged legal fees to Oxnard Unified that ended up being four times the amount of the settlement. Now that is a joke.

Anonymous said...

If had to pay money to read anything James Hatch wrote I'd never buy another copy of the OVN.

Anonymous said...

Nice use of the third person Mr. Hatch. Not too full of yourself are you?

James Hatch said...

Thanks for the compliment. James Hatch is always looking for new supporters.

Anonymous, who asked you to buy anything? What James Hatch offers is for free: Cutting edge analysis, straight to the point policies, and fiscal responsibility and accountability.

Anonymous said...

I just read that the case was dismissed. I hope the attorney had it on a contingency.

Anonymous said...

Mrs. McMichael has had to take time off of work, getting a substitute on and off for the last 2+ years preparing for this case. It has taken time away from children learning, it has cost the district money that they don't have.

Our president can set a 3 trillion dollar budget, for less than 12 months and our governor takes $2.5 million from the schools for what? That ontop of ridiculous ego driven lawsuits, and what do we have left? Children starving for an education, our future left without teachers being able to teach in fear of ego driven parents and b.s. lawsuits wasting the only money we have to house a place for children to learn.

No wonder our world is a mess. And they call themselves Christians. What a disgrace. What would Jesus think of these Christians?

There will be no judgement mr. hatch. The case was dismissed and unfortunately Mrs. McMichael and the school district, to my understanding, aren't allowed to sue for damages and slander of character, not to mention loss of the only funding they have.

I wonder if the children can return a lawsuit for loss of education onto the desks of the gov. and mrs cathy jones and the plaintiffs she was so poorly representing?

- ojai resident

Anonymous said...

The school district did not have to pay for any of the lawsuit.

James Hatch said...

Mr. Kelly,

When you update the article, please find someone accountable at the district to determine what this suit cost the taxpayers.

Thank you,

James Hatch

Anonymous said...

Ms. Cathy Elliot Jones has caused pain and suffering to a number of people in this town. She thinks that if she screams and threatens loud enough, everyone will bow to her. She has no sense of reasoning, her behavior in public is erratic and unprofessional and worse yet she claims to be a parent as well (and she is a poor example of a parent) - but she would prefer to slander good people, take good money for a frivilous lawsuit rather than choose to be an ethical attorney and a role model - can you imagine living with her! This town is sick and tired of her behavior - is it any surprise that she was incomprehensible and disorganized in her arguments - wonder why? Given previous bizarre behaviours at public events it is no surprise that she was unable to perform in a professional manner at this trial. The Lutrell's deserve to be represented by her - what horrible people to cause loss of income and funds to our school district and Ms. McMichaels! Ms. Jones - the consensus is, it is time for you to leave this town. Pack your bags as you are not welcome here. You do not belong here, take your cheap tricks and go somewhere else! (try the trailer parks in Stockton) and if you want any fashion advice - there is no necessity to show off any of your sagging appendages in public.

Anonymous said...

Don't hold back. Say what's on your mind. Really.

Ray Alpern said...

I think some of the comments on this blog are absolutely ridiculous. To disparage the attorney for being the advocate for her clients is like shooting the messenger! Especially when the commentors are sorely lacking in the facts and hiding behind the cowardly guise of anonymity. Personally I think Ms. Jones has done a lot of good for the underdogs of this town. I am reminded of the old saying "everyone hates lawyers - until they need one" Just a few facts to ponder: Ms. Jones had to be practically begged to take on this case, to characterize her as predatory is just plain false; When Lisa Clark aka "Busy Babe" was being royally screwed by the city's redevelopment of the Arcade and publicly slandered by the then City Manager, it was Ms. Jones who came to her rescue; When several parents of Special Ed children could not get the OUSD to stop breaking the law and provide the education that is FEDERALLY MANDATED, again it was Ms. Jones that came to their aid; And to respond to "anonymous 4:21" where are you getting your information concerning her parenting skills? I know for a fact that she is an excellent parent. And who are you to decide who does or does not belong in this town? You claim to have "consensus" on this issue, but funny I don't remember seeing it on any ballot I've received!; You also make a disparaging comment as to "imagine living with her" well, I don't have to imagine since I do, and I love every minute of it; As to your fashion advice for her that is just plain rude and only goes to show the hatred you have within you.

Yes, it is unfortunate that all parties involved have had to shoulder great expense in this case, but that's life in a democracy. If the case were truly frivolous it would have been tossed out by the judicial system in its entirety long ago. I consider it money well spent since if for nothing else at least now the OUSD has a policy in place for such matters. Let's just hope for our children's sake they abide by it.

Ray Alpern
Ojai

Jacob Grant said...

Cathy Jones has some serious demons loose in her skull. Pity (and pray for) her...

Anonymous said...

Ray Alpern, whoever you are, you must be an angel.

Anonymous said...

I live in Ojai too and I'm not sure how anybody can ignore the fact that little girls don't need to be reading about graphic sex and language. Preserving the innocence of children is something we, as a community, should all support. These parents aren't "over-protecting" they're just PROTECTING their young girl's innocence and other 5th grade student's rights to be children. Because ten year olds don't need to be thrown into the real world of adolescent sex, bad language and corruption just yet. They haven't had time to form a moral ground to stand on. And to those of you attacking the Luttrull's personal beliefs: It's hard to believe you know everything.... let alone ANYTHING.

kilgore trout said...

This kathy elliot jones is a piece of work. First the election meeting and now this. How would you like to be married to this women?