CONCORD — When Isabella “Belle” Hankey reported the first vicious slur carved into her car in the Concord-Carlisle High School parking lot in March 2012, the administration sprang into action, principal Peter Badalament said.
He worked with police, Hankey’s guidance counselor, teachers, and Superintendent Diana Rigby, he said, trying to find the culprit or culprits and keep Hankey safe.
“I actually gave the student my personal cellphone number and encouraged her to call me at any point when she needed to for immediate help,” Badalament said Tuesday. “We aggressively pursued every lead and took really concrete steps to ensure her safety.”
The district’s lawyer said administrators were shocked to learn Aug. 5 that Hankey, now 18, had filed a $2 million federal civil rights lawsuit in US District Court in Boston alleging that the school ignored the vicious bullying and death threats she allegedly suffered during her junior and senior years.
“It’s an outrageous accusation, in light of what actually happened and what the other side knows, fully well, happened,” attorney Leonard H. Kesten said in the first detailed interview officials have given since the lawsuit was filed against the district, the towns of Concord and Carlisle, Rigby, Badalament, and former assistant principal Alan Weinstein. “I think, legally, this is a case that has no merit, none.”
Kesten, who represents all the defendants, said he plans to file a motion to have the case dismissed.
Hankey’s lawyer, Timothy M. Burke, rejected the school district’s contention that administrators did all they could to stop the alleged bullying.
Hankey’s suit contends that the district failed to properly investigate the alleged bullying.
Burke said Tuesday that any actions the district took were at the insistence of Hankey’s family and were too little, too late. He pointed to e-mails some teachers sent to the administration in which the district’s handling of the alleged bullying was questioned.
“They had an affirmative obligation that they have failed miserably in,” said Burke. “It’s not just simply seen through the eyes of my client, but also by members of their own faculty.”
Hankey’s suit contends that not only did the district fail to properly investigate the alleged bullying or to formulate a plan to keep her safe, but that one administrator destroyed records of his investigation. In the fall of her senior year, Hankey alleges, she suffered a pulmonary embolism caused by stress.
During Tuesday’s interview, the district provided a list of the alleged incidents, along with actions it says administrators took, which included providing one-on-one personal security, installing cameras in the parking lot and by the restrooms, interviewing other students looking for leads, and assigning a security guard to watch Hankey’s car in the school parking lot.
“The student’s physical safety was our primary concern, and we responded swiftly to each and every incident and complaint involving this student,” said Rigby. “We worked very closely with not only our teachers, our staff, and our administration, but also our school resource officer and the Concord and Carlisle police departments to investigate each complaint.”
The alleged bullying began in October 2011, according to Hankey’s suit, when her car was keyed in the high school’s parking lot. A few months later, in February 2012, feces were allegedly smeared on her car door. Hankey reported both incidents to the police and to the district.
But Kesten said that those first two incidents appeared to be “straight-up vandalism” and did not rise to the level of a major problem until March 2012, when Hankey reported finding a vulgar sexual slur etched into her car.
In her lawsuit, Hankey alleges that when she told Weinstein about the slur, he said, “I don’t know what you want me to do” and later offered to “cover up” the vandalism using a blowtorch.
But Kesten said Weinstein, who was not available for comment Tuesday because he was on vacation, did not have a clear memory of the incident.
“As he recalls it,” Kesten said, “she was so upset that he said, ‘If you want, after we photograph the thing, we could remove it from your bumper so you don’t have to look at it.’ ”
After Hankey discovered the slur, Kesten said, she was offered a parking spot next to the school cafeteria that could be monitored, but she declined. Several students were interviewed, district officials said, but no suspects were identified.
The alleged vandalism continued, with some incidents occurring off campus, and in June 2012 Hankey reported discovering the first of several apparent death threats scrawled on the wall of a bathroom at the school.
In the fall of Hankey’s senior year, she allegedly discovered other cryptic messages in school bathrooms.
Each incident was reported to the district and to police, who, according to police reports attached to Hankey’s complaint, took photographs, interviewed possible suspects, and in some cases viewed surveillance video.
After the second reported death threat, also in June, Badalament sent a letter to all parents and students and set up an anonymous e-mail site for tips.
Badalament said Tuesday that throughout the course of the alleged bullying, he also interviewed some students, though he did not always keep records of those conversations, and Kesten said the notes he did have were not yet available due to concerns about student privacy. Badalament pointed to a July 2012 meeting that the district held with Hankey’s parents, the police, and Rigby, where he said they came up with a plan to keep Hankey safe in the upcoming school year. A written copy of the plan was not created, he said.
“It’s shocking to me that they think they responded in an adequate way,” said Debra Hankey, Isabella’s mother, who called the district’s statements Tuesday “outrageous.” Every meeting the family had with the district, she said, was held because they requested it, and while police followed up with them, the district did not.
“They absolutely did not respond,” she said. “They maybe started to respond after death threats, but not adequately. And there was never any real safety plan for Belle.”
Hankey’s suit alleges that Weinstein shredded records of his investigation of the bullying when he retired in June 2012, and that those records could have shown who the culprits were.
Kesten, however, said that Weinstein did not have any relevant documents, as he was minimally involved in the investigation.
On Tuesday, Burke called the district’s list of responses “a self-serving document that does little more than document the occurrence of each of these events. “There’s nothing detailing what their so-called investigation was,” he said. “There’s nothing about the inquiry or the names of the individuals who were allegedly interviewed.”
While the district said it has conducted a review of the events surrounding the bullying, Badalament said Tuesday that the school has no plans to revise its bullying policy, which he called “excellent.”