State College

A SCASD teacher was punished for allegedly striking a child. Why she’s suing the superintendent

A State College Area School District music teacher has filed a lawsuit against the district’s superintendent, stemming from an incident at Easterly Parkway Elementary School in April 2017.
A State College Area School District music teacher has filed a lawsuit against the district’s superintendent, stemming from an incident at Easterly Parkway Elementary School in April 2017.

A State College Area School District music teacher filed a lawsuit against the district’s superintendent over his handling of an allegation that she struck a student.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday by full-time teacher Lisa Bevan, stems from an incident at Easterly Parkway Elementary School in April 2017. According to the lawsuit, Bevan “admonished” a group of third graders for not being quiet in the hallway upon dismissal.

When she arrived at Mount Nittany Elementary School the following day to teach, she was instead told to meet with Vernon Bock, the district’s supervisor of elementary education, and to bring a State College Area Education Association representative with her, according to the lawsuit.

Bock opened the meeting by asking her whether “something had happened yesterday at Easterly Parkway” before telling her about an allegation that she struck a student during class, the lawsuit said.

Bevan denied the allegation, speculating only that she may have inadvertently made contact with the student while gesturing with her hands, according to the lawsuit.

SCASD Superintendent Bob O’Donnell suspended her for 28 days with pay, during which time the district, State College police and Children and Youth Services conducted independent investigations, according to the lawsuit.

“As the superintendent of schools, I based my decisions on what was reported to me by Children and Youth Services, the State College Police Department, and our district administrators, following their independent investigations,” O’Donnell wrote in an email on Tuesday.

Bevan is suing O’Donnell for intentional infliction of emotional distress, loss of consortium and civil rights violations. She requested a jury trial and is seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.

“As this matter is in litigation, my clients and I will have no statement at this time,” Bevan’s attorney, David Serene, said Wednesday.

Easterly Parkway Elementary, part of the State College Area School District. Abby Drey

SCASD Solicitor Scott Etter released a statement Wednesday, saying that while the district does not ordinarily publicly comment about private personnel matters, an exception was made because the employee chose to make it public.

When district employees receive information about alleged improper conduct, Etter wrote, they make the required phone call to Childline as mandated reporters, make the local police aware and conduct an internal investigation.

CYS concluded the allegation was “unfounded.” According to Etter, that’s the designation CYS uses when something happens that is inappropriate, but investigators aren’t able to prove abuse.

The student’s mother initially reported the student was fine and, in an email, wrote, “I completely understand that (the student) was probably not doing the right thing and that she may have embellished the story about being slapped.”

After receiving all three reports in May 2017, O’Donnell told Bevan he believed the allegation was true and that she would be suspended without pay for five days. Three of the five days were for allegedly striking the child, while the two remaining days were for not cooperating with the investigation, according to the lawsuit.

“What that alleged failure to cooperate amounted to was Lisa’s failure to acquiesce in the district’s repeated insistence that she confess to an offense, which she did not commit,” the lawsuit said.

Bevan’s behavior showed “intemperance and immorality,” O’Donnell wrote in the letter. He also urged her to consider anger management classes and restore her relationship with the Easterly Parkway community.

“As superintendent, I struggle learning that such an experienced teacher as you would strike a child out of anger or frustration,” O’Donnell wrote to Bevan, who has taught in the district since 1990 and had no prior record of discipline.

State College Area School District Superintendent Robert O’Donnell speaks at the pep rally before the opening for the new State College Area High School building on Jan. 8, 2018. Phoebe Sheehan

The two sides attended arbitration hearings after Bevan and SCAEA filed a grievance. Current and former SCAEA presidents Mardi McDonough and Eugene Ruocchio did not respond to requests for comment.

“The presented evidence is woefully inadequate to convince (me) that a hitting, striking or slapping of (the student) ever occurred,” arbitrator Debra Wallet wrote in her ruling included in the lawsuit.

Wallet ordered the district to return all of Bevan’s pay, any other lost benefits, clear her record of unsatisfactory ratings, negative evaluation comments and any other references to the suspension.

Etter said he plans to file a written response to the lawsuit “in the near future.”

Bret Pallotto primarily reports on courts and crime for the Centre Daily Times. He grew up in Lewistown and graduated from Lock Haven University.