A State College Area School District music teacher who was suspended in 2017 for an allegation that she struck a student has filed a lawsuit against Superintendent Robert O'Donnell.
Lisa Bevan, a full-time elementary music teacher employed by the district since 1990, claimed in her lawsuit filed on Friday that the 2017 allegation proved to be unfounded but that O'Donnell believed she was guilty and suspended her, first with pay while investigations were conducted, then without pay.
“I am aware of this claim, and our attorney will file a written response to the court in the near future," O'Donnell said in a statement provided by the school district. "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.”
According to the lawsuit, on April 26, 2017, Bevan was teaching at Easterly Parkway Elementary School and students "were having difficulty focusing on the lesson and staying on task." After she dismissed them, she heard voices in the hallway and found another teacher trying to quiet them. Bevan then "admonished the students to improve their behavior," and was thanked by the other teacher.
The following day she reported to teach at Mount Nittany Elementary School but was told by the principal that she was to meet with supervisor of elementary education Vernon Bock and that she should have representation from the State College Area Education Association with her.
Bevan says she did not know what the meeting would be about and when she arrived Bock began by asking "whether something happened yesterday at Easterly Parkway." Bock eventually told Bevan of an allegation that she had struck a third-grade student, according to the lawsuit.
Bevan denied the accusation, "speculating only that she may have inadvertently had contact [with the student] while gesturing with her hands." But Bevan says she believed Bock's "mind was made up and that nothing she could say would change it."
She was then suspended for 28 days with pay while the school district, State College Police Department and Children and Youth Services conducted investigations.
The student's mother reported that the child was "fine" and on the evening of the incident sent an email to the Easterly principal stating, "I completely understand that [the child] was probably not doing the right thing and that she may have embellished the story about being slapped."
Director of Human Resources Linda Pierce, who conducted the district investigation with Bock, later testified at arbitration that she did not believe Bevan intended to hurt the student. She also testified the other teacher present in the hallway said she did not see Bevan strike a student.
The CYS investigation concluded the allegation was "unfounded," meaning it was insufficient to justify criminal charges, and made no finding of specific misconduct by Bevan, according to the lawsuit.
In another statement provided by the district, SCASD solicitor Scott Etter said the CYS investigator "found the student to be 'credible' when the student stated that the music teacher hit her."
He added that the investigator stated Bevan "was not being honest about the incident that day," and that she "did not believe that the information that [Bevan] gave in the interview was credible."
A CYS supervisor also said she the allegation resulted in being unfounded because there was no lasting pain or injury but that, "We believe the facts — the facts and that this incident occurred."
The supervisor also said the "unfounded" letter is sent "when we think something happened was inappropriate. But it didn't rise to the level of us being able to indicate or found an abuse."
The State College Police Department investigation was conducted by then-School Resource Officer Terry Stec and consisted of interviews with Bevan and the student's mother, according to the lawsuit.
Stec, according to Etter, said he believed there was sufficient evidence to charge Bevan with a crime.
"... [I]n my experience, I've never had a situation where three young people that age independently tell the same story to their parents or to another adult to say that an incident took place that rose to that level of concern by those parents, who forwarded the information on to the victim's parent to check on the condition of their [child]," Stec said.
After the investigations were completed, O'Donnell met with Bevan, who was joined by her counsel and an association representative. O'Donnell, according to the complaint, told her the district believed the allegation was true and that she would be disciplined.
Bevan was suspended for five days without pay — three for allegedly striking the student and two for not cooperating with the investigation, the latter of which Bevan claims was for her failure to admit guilt and further respond to the allegations. O'Donnell also told Bevan that the district was considering filing an educator misconduct report with the state Department of Education.
O'Donnell wrote in a follow-up letter to Bevan that the investigations concluded that "inappropriate behavior occurred," but Bevan said the only evidence against her were uncorroborated statements by the child and two other third-grade students.
The Education Association filed a grievance on Bevan's behalf and both parties agreed to arbitration that took place during hearings in 2017 and 2018. An arbitrator ultimately sustained the grievance in its entirety and the district was required to provide Bevan all pay and benefits from the five-day suspension and clear her record.
Bevan is suing O'Donnell for intentional infliction of emotional distress and deprivation of rights. Her husband, Brian, is also suing O'Donnell for loss of consortium. They are seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.