A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit against State College Area School District superintendent Robert O'Donnell by a teacher who was was suspended in 2017 for an allegation that she struck a student.
Elementary school music teacher Lisa Bevan claimed in a complaint filed in April that the allegation proved to be unfounded but that O'Donnell believed she was guilty and suspended her anyway, first with pay while investigations were conducted, then without pay.
U.S. District Judge Matthew Brann dismissed all claims in Bevan's complaint with prejudice.
"It's a pretty clear-cut decision and as we expected," said district solicitor Scott Etter, who did not represent O'Donnell. "There was no legal basis for the lawsuit itself."
O'Donnell said on Thursday that because the alleged incident involved a veteran teacher and the safety of a student, it was one of the more difficult situations he has encountered in his career.
"I took this matter incredibly seriously and gathered as much information as possible," O'Donnell wrote in an email. "In the end, my decision was based on the outcomes of three separate investigations that led me to conclude Ms. Bevan did strike a child. One came from the State College police, another from Children and Youth Services, and finally, a third from our interviews with the students directly involved as well as teachers."
On April 27, 2017, Bevan was teaching at Easterly Parkway Elementary School and students "were having difficulty focusing on the lesson and staying on task," according to her lawsuit. After she dismissed them, she heard voices in the hallway and "admonished the students to improve their behavior."
The next 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 said she did not know what the meeting would be about and when informed by Bock she denied the accusation that she struck a third-grade student, "speculating only that she may have inadvertently had contact [with the student] while gesturing with her hands."
She was then suspended for 28 days with pay while the school district, State College Police Department and Children and Youth Services conducted investigations. According to the lawsuit, the student's mother sent an email to the school saying the child was "fine" and may have embellished the story.
The CYS investigator concluded the allegation was "unfounded," meaning it was insufficient to justify criminal charges. Etter said in May that the CYS investigator "found the student to be 'credible' when the student stated that the music teacher hit [the child]," and that the investigator stated Bevan "was not being honest about the incident that day."
A CYS supervisor also said 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," adding that the "unfounded" letter is sent "when we think something happened that was inappropriate. But it didn't rise to the level of us being able to indicate or found an abuse."
A State College police school resource officer said after his investigation he believed there was sufficient evidence to charge Bevan with a crime.
Following the investigations, Bevan was suspended for five days without pay, three for allegedly striking the student and two for not cooperating with the investigation.
"After a full and complete review with our district leadership team, I made the decision to suspend Ms. Bevan for five days and put her on a district supported improvement plan," O'Donnell said on Thursday. "To this day, I stand by my decision and believe my actions were justified based on the sum of the information I had."
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 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 brief 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, including in particular two independent investigations conducted by CYS and the local police department, when deciding to impose discipline upon Mrs. Bevan."
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.
The arbitrator wrote that the evidence presented was "woefully inadequate" to show Bevan had struck the student. Etter, however, said that the evidence was found inadequate because the child and her two friends who allegedly witnessed the incident did not testify during the arbitration proceedings.
Bevan sued O'Donnell for emotional distress, loss of consortium and violation of due process rights.
Conrad's brief argued that by relying on the results of three investigations and by consenting to arbitration, O'Donnell clearly did not violate Bevan's due process rights. Bevan's attorney, David Serene, wrote in a filing that O'Donnell "failed to apprise her of the predominantly exculpatory nature of the evidence which his own investigation had obtained and actively misrepresented to her that it was uniformly and clearly indicative of her guilt."
Brann agreed with O'Donnell's contention that because Bevan successfully arbitrated a grievance over her suspension, her due process rights were not violated, and so dismissed that claim.
The judge also agreed with the argument that the emotional distress and loss of consortium claims should be dismissed because of high public official immunity.
"Pennsylvania law shields certain state officials (including superintendents) from liability for certain torts (including intentional infliction of emotional distress), if the complained-of conduct falls 'within the course of [the] defendant[‘s] duties or scope of authority,'" Brann wrote. "Here, Mr. O’Donnell’s superintendent duties included handling teacher discipline issues."
"Regardless of the intricacies of this case, I feel we let this child down because we weren’t able to protect [the child]," O'Donnell said. "No part of my job is more important than protecting children, and I will always do everything in my power to ensure the safety of our students."