Camden School Board Settles Lawsuit over Punishment for $500,000

Kevin C. Shelly, Courier Post, August 13, 2012

The school board has agreed to pay $500,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by seven Hispanic students, who were made to eat lunch on the floor as punishment for spilling a jug of water.

The February 2008 incident at Charles Sumner Elementary School in Liberty Park had stirred claims of bias and underscored tensions between the city’s black and Hispanic communities.

Without admitting any guilt, the Camden Board of Education recently approved the settlement with the former fifth-grade students. {snip}

Under the settlement, the students will split $280,000, which works out to $31,428 each. Their attorney, Alan H. Schorr of Cherry Hill, will get $220,000.

The board had previously settled with the students’ teacher, Jose Rivera, who was fired after reporting the incident to the board of education.

Rivera, who holds a teaching job in another district, was awarded $75,000, with $50,000 of that payment going to Schorr.

The administrator who imposed the punishment, Theresa Brown, was reassigned to another school. Brown, now a vice principal at Camden High School, could not be reached for comment.

{snip}

According to the suit, the punishment occurred after a student in Rivera’s bilingual class—overseen that day by a substitute teacher—tried to change a jug of water in a water cooler and caused a spill.

Brown then allegedly punished the class of about 15 Puerto Rican students by making them eat on the cafeteria floor, while other classes were seated at tables. Some students in Rivera’s class were absent on the day of the spill, but they also were subject to the continuing punishment, the lawsuit says.

Brown also threatened the students with additional punishment if they told anyone about the punishment, the lawsuit said.

{snip}

Concerned that he would face retaliation if he went to the school’s administration, Rivera coached his class to tell their parents to contact school board members.

The students followed through—but Rivera’s plan backfired.

He was suspended by the board for failing to notify the principal, and was fired in March 2008 for “conduct unbecoming a board employee.”

{snip}

A review by the state Department of Education concluded Brown had forced students to eat on the floor as punishment for five consecutive days, but it said that was not a racist act.

{snip}

The school board, led by then-President Sara Davis, who remains on the board, initially brushed off the incident as “isolated.”

But the board, like the city, split along racial lines.

Both of the Hispanic school board members serving at the time of the incident, Luis Lopez, who is now a city council member, and Amalia Adame, voted against transferring Brown rather than firing her.

Lopez and Councilman Frank Moran, who is now the president of council, attended rallies to protest the board’s handling of the incident. Lopez called Brown’s transfer—rather than firing—“a slap in the face to the Hispanic community.”

{snip}

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