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Redlands Unified Found Not at Fault in Alleged Suicide Try

Times Staff Writer

A San Bernardino County jury on Friday ruled that the Redlands Unified School District was not to blame for the alleged suicide attempt of a 7-year-old African American girl taunted by classmates with racial slurs.

In its unanimous decision, the jury found that the girl did not prove that the name-calling rose above typical childhood teasing.

“They found unanimously that racial harassment didn’t occur at Lugonia Elementary,” said school district attorney Stephen Harber. “They believed that the teachers who were involved correctly managed their classrooms, and, frankly, they disbelieved the plaintiff and her mother when they suggested otherwise.”

The girl, now 10, testified that classmates berated her with racial slurs. On May 15, 2001, after a boy insulted her race, the girl said she grabbed a jump-rope, tied it to a set of monkey bars and tried to commit suicide.

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During the trial, lawyers for the district argued that the story was a fabrication from an emotionally troubled young girl. In a taped deposition last year, she had denied attempting suicide.

The girl’s mother alleged that, before the 2001 incident, she and her daughter complained repeatedly to teachers and administrators, but that their complaints were ignored. Jurors said they were not convinced that the mother complained to school or district officials.

School officials testified that they took appropriate action when they learned classmates were bullying the girl or calling her names, and put one student on detention.

“Every time something was brought to the teachers’ attention, something was done,” juror Stacey Brooks said after the verdict was announced.

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“Unfortunately, there was never any information on the mother’s part that she did anything to alert the school.”

As part of his jury instructions, Judge Christopher Warren explained that for jurors to rule in favor of the girl, her lawyer had to prove that Redlands Unified knew and did nothing about the harassment and that that harassment was so severe that it deprived the girl of an education. Among children, the judge explained, insults, banter, teasing and name-calling -- even with racial overtones -- were not enough to prove severe harassment.

Jurors carefully considered those points during their deliberations, Brooks said.

“We gave every side equal attention and read every single document carefully, but the question we had to answer was, ‘Was [the girl] racially harassed severely, pervasively?’ ” Brooks said. “Do we think she maybe was teased? Sure. Any kid is. But we had to ask whether it was a case of a girl who can’t go to school.”

Attorney Charles Hack, who represented the girl’s family, said he was disappointed, but not shocked, by the verdict. The girl and her family were not present for the verdict, but he visited his client at home later in the day, he said.

“She was crying and all she said was, ‘They didn’t believe me,’ ” Hack said. “That’s what struck me more than anything.”

Reached at home Friday, the girl’s mother said she may appeal the decision.

“At this point, all I can tell her is that Mommy’s going to do all that she can to get justice for her,” she said. “I know she’s telling the truth.”

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