By WECT Staff | April 14, 2021 at 3:05 PM EDT – Updated April 14 at 3:09 PM
PENDER COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) – A Pender County teacher is suing the school board and other district leaders, claiming they ignored warning signs and failed to act prior to a student allegedly assaulting her in the classroom in 2018.
The suit, filed on April 9 by Kimberly Burns-Fisher, who is an eighth-grade language arts teacher at Topsail Middle School, names the Pender County Board of Education, Superintendent Steven Hill, and former Topsail Middle School Principal Anna Romero-Lehrer as defendants.
According to the complaint, Burns-Fisher was teaching her last class of the day on April 19, 2018, an “inclusion” class that consisted of 30 students — ten of whom had Individual Education Plans (IEP) for varying reasons.
One of the students in the class was a 15-year-old boy, who is an EC (exceptional children) student and had a well-documented history of violence toward staff, her lawsuit claims.
Toward the end of the class, the students were playing a vocabulary review game, with the results written on a white board in the classroom. “When Ms. Burns-Fisher took the results down from the white board, [the student] called [her] a ‘moron’,” the complaint states.
After telling the student that was inappropriate, Burns-Fisher asked the student to bring his communication log to her.
“As [the student] approached Ms. Burns-Fisher….he walked up to her, lifted his book bag over his head and threw it at Ms. Burns-Fisher, hitting her in the left side of the head,” according to the lawsuit. “Though stunned, [she] immediately pickup a walkie talkie device and communicated that she needed a crisis team in her room.”
Burns-Fisher claims as she was getting up from the initial attack to get the other students to safety, the student “lunged at [her], hitting her and knocked her back down into her chair. [He] then grabbed the walkie talkie from [her] hands and charged at her, causing her to fall out of her chair and into a table and filing cabinet.”
The lawsuit claims the student then began kicking her in the head and back.
“As a result of the attack, Ms. Burns-Fisher suffered serious injuries to her body including her brain … the attack required ongoing medical treatment, including surgery, from multiple providers and have kept her from returning to work as of the date of this complaint,” the lawsuit states.
The Pender County Sheriff’s Office arrested the student and the results of the investigation were submitted to NC Division of Juvenile Justice for review. The result of the case is not immediately known.
The lawsuit claims the student had a documented history of “violence against fellow students, teachers, staff, and administrators” dating back to at least 2011 and that the defendants knew about the previous incidents prior to the alleged attack on April 19, 2018.
The suit mentions 14 prior incidents that include head-butting a teacher in the back in 2011, resulting in the teacher going to the hospital; assaulting a teacher and a teacher’s assistant during class in 2012; kicking, biting, slapping, and pulling a teacher’s hair and attempting to stab her with a pencil in 2012; grabbing an administrator’s necktie and pulling him around by it and punching him in the eye; choking a fellow student by grabbing a hoodie, and biting a second student who tried to help in 2017; and stabbing a teacher in the arm with a pencil in 2017.
At the beginning of the 2017-2018 school year, all the teachers at Topsail Middle who were assigned classes with the student held a meeting with then-principal Anna Romero-Lehrer. The lawsuit claims all the teachers at the meeting had been previously injured by the student, except one who managed to escape injury during a prior incident.
“At this meeting, [the student’s] teachers told defendant Romero-Lehrer that they believed [the student] did not need to be in mainstream classes, for his benefit and for the benefit and safety of the teachers and students in those classes,” Burns-Fisher’s complaint reads.
The lawsuit claims that the defendants — the school board, superintendent Steven Hill, and principal Anna Romero-Lehrer — did not heed the teachers’ advice or take action to prevent any further attacks.
“Despite knowing of the dangers posed by [the student], defendants failed to take appropriate action to protect the teachers and students at Topsail Middle School from [the student’s] known violence or to follow school system policies or principles.”
Later that school year, Burns-Fisher claims the student menaced her and attacked her in separate incidents in Dec. 2017.
“While on the school playground during school hours, [the student] began circling Ms. Burns-Fisher like she was prey and lunged forward at her, such that the playground had to be cleared and the crisis team called.”
In another incident that month, the lawsuit claims that Burns-Fisher asked the student to return another student’s sweatshirt and “instead of complying, [he] hit her in the back, causing her injuries that required medical treatment at a hospital.” Other teachers witnessed this attack, and the student was suspended for two days, the lawsuit states.
After the attack, Burns-Fisher claims she requested the student be removed from her classroom, but that was denied by principal Anna Romero-Lehrer.
Burns-Fisher said the class she was teaching at the time of the April 19 attack was an inclusion class — a mixture of EC students and non-EC students. In the lawsuit, she says it’s district policy to have two teachers, one of which has to be an EC teacher, when an inclusion class has ten of 30 students with IEPs.
Prior to the attack, she alerted school administration that the EC teacher scheduled for that day was not working. In the lawsuit, she claims that Romero-Lehrer came to the classroom and left without sending a second teacher or “take any action to fix the violation.”
“Defendant Romero-Lehrer frequently condoned the teaching of inclusion classes without the required second teacher present,” the lawsuit states. “By being required to teach inclusion classes without the required two teachers present, especially those with [the student], due to his history of violence, students and teachers at Topsail Middle School, including plaintiff, were placed in danger.”
The lawsuit also faults the Pender County Board of Education for “failing to adequately enforce policies and guidelines related to safety and student behavior violations.”
The suit lays out several snippets from various district policies about the behavior of students toward other students, teachers, and administration, and not tolerating disruptive behavior or assaults, threats, or harassment from any student. The suit also alleges the school board failed to adequately train personnel to enforce the safety and disciplinary standards.
“By failing to take appropriate action regarding [the student] with knowledge of his history and violent behavior against Pender BOE students and employees generally and Ms. Burns-Fisher in particular, the defendants Pender BOE and [Superintendent Steven Hill] violated their policies on April 19, 2018, and as result, [the student] attacked Ms. Burns-Fisher, causing her serious and permanent injuries.”
The lawsuit says Burns-Fisher seeks compensatory and non-compensatory damages for injuries she sustained in the attack as well as punitive damages to be awarded by a jury.
WECT has reached out to the Pender County school district for comment regarding the lawsuit and will update this report when we receive it.
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