Catholic school blamed for bullying

Lawsuit claims officials’ indifference led kids to target autistic student
Students at John W. Garvy Elementary School work together on an assignment. Christine Yonan said there “truly is zero tolerance” for bullying at the public school. (Abel Uribe, Chicago Tribune / May 31, 2012)
By Manya A. Brachear, Chicago Tribune reporter

June 6, 2012
Christine Yonan doesn’t blame the children who picked on her autistic son. She doesn’t blame their parents. She blames the staff at his Northwest Side Catholic elementary school because she believes they did nothing to stop it.

In a lawsuit filed in Cook County Circuit Court earlier this month, Yonan says Principal Ray Coleman and teachers at St. Monica Academy ignored attacks on her son Anthony during the last two years he attended school there.

Yonan said the students’ cruelty and the principal’s indifference became so unbearable that she withdrew her son and daughter, both of whom had attended St. Monica since preschool. Even when she complained to higher authorities, including police, she was always referred back to the principal, Yonan said.

“What do you do when you’ve done everything on the list and nothing gets done?” she said. “If something was done, show me because I missed it. He was there (for) nine years. That’s a huge investment in Catholic schools.”

Sister Mary Paul McCaughey, superintendent of Chicago’s Catholic schools, said every school in the archdiocese, including St. Monica, has an anti-bullying policy on the books that exceeds the state’s guidelines.

“You want a culture of reverence in the school,” McCaughey said. “We’re asking for more than anti-bullying. We’re asking for a sense of service, a sense of kindness, a sense of inclusion. We’re clearly saddened that the family did not feel that was experienced at St. Monica.”

The school’s definition of bullying is published in the St. Monica handbook along with bans on snowball throwing, tardiness and chewing gum. It also outlines how bullying allegations should be handled.

“Bullying is a deliberately hurtful behavior. It is repeated often over a period of time, and it is difficult for those being bullied to defend themselves. At St. Monica Academy, bullying will be taken seriously. It will be investigated and appropriate action will be taken. Information will be kept on file should bullying persist,” the handbook says.

Andrea Kayne Kaufman, an associate professor at DePaul University specializing in school law, said school policies should be specific and enforced.

“It’s just words on a piece of paper or pixels on a computer screen. If everybody in the building is not on board, then it’s meaningless,” she said. “It also sends a message to all the kids in the school that it’s meaningless.”

Yonan’s attorney, Keely Hillison, said that when she requested records connected to the handling of Anthony’s case, only three handwritten notes were made available. Meanwhile, Yonan, a regular volunteer at the school, said she witnessed and reported dozens of incidents. When she asked for an anti-bullying counselor to intervene, Coleman refused to connect them, Yonan said.

Instead of punishing the bullies, she said, school officials excluded her son from activities where bullying took place. Eventually Anthony was barred from basketball, volleyball and school dances and couldn’t attend after-school math tutoring unless accompanied by his sister.

McCaughey would not comment on specifics of the Yonans’ allegations. According to a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, Coleman could not comment either.

“I don’t think what St. Monica did would hold up to any standard for any school,” Hillison said. “At every school, the child’s safety has to be paramount. We’re not accusing Catholic schools or the archdiocese of not having a bullying policy. It’s just this particular school.”

Ann Creighton, a special education teacher at another school, said her daughter, a recent graduate, saw multiple students at St. Monica get bullied, and often watched the victims get punished for reacting to the harassment.

When parents complained, Creighton said, Coleman told them to work it out among themselves.

“They’ll grow out of bullying,” Creighton said. “It’s the adults’ job to bridge that gap, so it’s not so violent. It’s our job to lessen the effect. (Coleman) has no concept of that and doesn’t understand his role.”

Yonan said she withdrew Anthony from St. Monica in March 2011, when he was in sixth grade, after Coleman refused to reprimand a student whom she had just seen punch her son.

She enrolled him in John W. Garvy Elementary School, the nearest public school, where bullying was punished immediately, she said. “There truly is zero tolerance at Garvy,” Yonan said.

But the public school doesn’t offer the religious training that Yonan wanted for her son. To avoid enrolling him late in religious classes elsewhere, she sought out a Chaldean church that offers Catholic confirmation for special needs children. She hasn’t been back to worship at St. Monica Parish.

“Do I want to be part of a religion that would do that to a little boy?” she said tearfully.

Yonan said when she finally reached out to the archdiocese after withdrawing Anthony from St. Monica, McCaughey was the only school official who offered an apology.

“I don’t like any kid to be picked on,” McCaughey said. “I think Mr. Coleman really did his best job of trying to address it. In any situation you want to create a strong enough culture where this type of thing is not tolerated.”,0,361155.story