Federal judge throws out teacher’s lawsuit against SCASD superintendent

A federal judge earlier this month dismissed a now retired State College Area School District teacher’s lawsuit that criticized SCASD Superintendent Bob O’Donnell’s handling of a 2017 child abuse allegation.

Lisa Bevan, who began working for the district in 1990 and retired at the end of the 2018-19 school year, claimed in her lawsuit filed in April that the allegation was unfounded, but O’Donnell believed she was guilty and suspended her for 28 days with pay and five days without after investigation.

“Unfounded” is the designation Centre County Children and Youth Services uses when something happens that is inappropriate, but investigators aren’t able to prove abuse, according to SCASD solicitor Scott Etter.

Etter, who started working for the district in 1994, said Bevan’s lawsuit was the first time in his experience that a local superintendent was the subject of a lawsuit filed by a teacher.

“(The ruling) was as we expected,” Etter said, though he did not represent O’Donnell or the district throughout the proceedings. “We believed that the result would be as it was. The law is very clear on it.”

Bevan was teaching a group of third-grade students at Easterly Parkway Elementary School in April 2017 when she “admonished” them in an attempt to improve their behavior, according to the lawsuit.

The following day, Bevan was told to meet with Vernon Bock, SCASD’s supervisor of elementary education, and bring representation from the State College Area Education Association with her, according to the lawsuit.

Bevan was told about the allegation that she struck a student, which she denied, and speculated she may have “inadvertently had contact” with the student while gesturing with her hand, according to the lawsuit.

O’Donnell suspended her for 28 days with pay while the district, State College police and CYS each conducted independent investigations. State College police did not file charges and CYS said the allegation was “unfounded,” but O’Donnell believed inappropriate behavior occurred, according to the lawsuit.

Easterly Parkway Elementary, part of the State College Area School District, on April 30, 2019. Abby Drey

An arbiter in December 2017 ordered the district to return all of Bevan’s pay, clear her record of unsatisfactory ratings, negative evaluation comments and any other references to the suspension because the presented evidence of hitting, striking or slapping of the child was “woefully inadequate.”

A parent of the child who was allegedly struck testified during the hearing, but none of the involved children testified, according to SCASD. The lack of testimony during the hearing was a “shortcoming” in the district’s ability to present its case, Etter said.

“That was the basis for the arbitrator saying that the district’s case was ‘woefully inadequate,’ ” Etter said. “That doesn’t negate or undercut the information that Dr. O’Donnell had from CYS and their conclusions. It’s a position that we stick to, to this day — that Mrs. Bevan struck the child.”

O’Donnell’s ruling, attorney David Serene wrote on behalf of Bevan in a document filed in June, was “extreme and outrageous and outside the bounds of acceptable behavior in society.”

“The decision to suspend Mrs. Bevan followed the results of three separate investigations into her alleged conduct,” O’Donnell’s attorney, Christopher Conrad, wrote in a document filed in June. “Quite clearly, the decision to suspend Mrs. Bevan was not made arbitrarily and it was entirely reasonable for Dr. O’Donnell to rely upon the results of those investigations.”

Conrad also successfully argued O’Donnell was immune from the lawsuit because he is afforded high public official immunity. U.S. District Judge Matthew Brann dismissed all of Bevan’s claims with prejudice.

“Pennsylvania law shields certain state officials, including superintendents, from liability for certain torts if the complained-of conduct falls within the course of the defendant’s duties or scope of authority,” Brann wrote in his ruling. “Because this court cannot conceive how amendment of this claim would help its defects — how amendment would overcome Mr. O’Donnell’s immunity — the dismissal will be with prejudice.”

Serene declined to comment about the lawsuit Wednesday, but said, “We were pleased that the federal court recognized that Lisa had been fully vindicated by the decision of the arbitrator and, therefore, no further court relief was available.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include a clarification on the CYS definition of “unfounded” and to correct information about who testified at the arbitration hearing.

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