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Doe v. Town of Hopkinton

Superior Court of Massachusetts, Middlesex

March 6, 2017

John Doe et al., as Parents and Next Friends on Behalf of Their Minor Daughter Mary Doe
Town of Hopkinton et al No. 136537

          Filed March 7, 2017


          Helene Kazanjian, Justice of the Superior Court.

         Plaintiff minor Mary Doe (" Mary"), by and through her parents, brought this case against the defendants, alleging that during the 2009-2010 school year, defendant William S. Howard (" Howard"), a Hopkinton teacher, sexually molested Mary, an eleven-year-old student. The matter is before the court on a motion for summary judgment filed by defendants Town of Hopkinton and Hopkinton Public Schools (collectively the " Town"), John Phelan (" Phelan"), William Lynch (" Lynch"), Jason Webster (" Webster") and William Meehan (" Meehan"). After a hearing and careful consideration of the parties' written submissions, the motion for summary judgment is ALLOWED in part, and DENIED in part.


         The following material facts are taken from the summary judgment record.[1]

         Phelan is the former Hopkinton School Superintendent; Lynch is the former Principal of the Hopkinton Middle School; Webster is the former Middle School Assistant Principal; and Meehan is a Hopkinton Middle School guidance counselor.

         During the 2009-2010 academic year, Mary was eleven years old and a sixth grade student at Hopkinton Middle School. Howard was her homeroom and science teacher. Mary alleges that Howard sexually assaulted and molested her repeatedly at various locations at the Hopkinton Middle School. The allegations are that Howard touched Mary's hips, back, shoulders, buttocks, bra strap, breasts and between her legs, and that he would put his pelvis near her face while she was sitting at her desk. It is also alleged that Howard reached down into Mary's shirt and lifted up a necklace that was hanging between her breasts. Mary began to noticeably struggle emotionally in her sixth grade year. Her friends reported that she became dark and seemed unhappy. By seventh grade, her friends described her as a " totally different person." Mary began scratching and cutting herself and was hospitalized. She reported the abuse by Howard to a therapist. Her parents learned of the alleged abuse from the therapist in May 2011.

         Prior to Mary's report of sexual assault, there had been a history of reports to school officials about Howard's behavior. At least since 2005, students reported witnessing Howard engaging in inappropriate touching of girls during class. He had a reputation of being " creepy, " a " perv" and someone who " hit on girls." Howard was also observed taking photographs of female students in places that were deemed inappropriate, such as a cabin on a field trip where girls were in various stages of undress and backstage during school plays. It is also alleged that Howard had students change into bathing suits in his storage area in back of his classroom for a water displacement " density" experiment.

         Plaintiffs describe a number of specific instances where parents or students complained to the school about Howard's conduct. Some examples of these instances are described below.

         During the 2005-2006 academic year, a parent walked in on Howard with her daughter in a dark room performing an experiment. The same parent subsequently found her daughter again alone with Howard after school in a room in the school library. She saw the defendant and her daughter sitting in two chairs with their legs interlocked and his hand on her thigh. The parent spoke to school officials about the incident but she cannot remember exactly who, although she thought it might have been Dr. Lyons, who was the assistant principal at the time. She also recalls speaking to Meehan, who told her that he would tell Howard that the student would not be staying after school to work on the project anymore. Howard remembers being spoken to by Lynch, not Meehan, about the incident and he was told that his relationship with that student was to end. The student remembers that a year or two after she was no longer in Howard's class, she spoke to Meehan, along with one or two other students, about Howard's inappropriate behavior. Specifically, she told Meehan that Howard rubbed her shoulders in class, hugged her and kissed her on the forehead. She remembers Meehan responding: " Oh, that's just Mr. Howard. That's what he does. He grew up in a touchy-feely home, so that's what he does."

         In 2008, one or more female students reported to the school adjustment counselor, Debby Arienti, that Howard's touching them made them uncomfortable and that he was " creepy." The following academic year, Meehan heard that Howard was making female students uncomfortable by touching them, although he understood that the touching was not sexual. Meehan told Howard to be careful not to touch female students, and Howard agreed to try to stop.

         In April 2009, a female student told Webster that Howard had picked up her necklace, which was hanging between her shirt and jacket, and commented that it was nice, before putting it back on her chest. The student told Webster that this incident made her uncomfortable. Webster verbally counseled Howard and he apologized to the student.

         As a general matter, prior to the 2009-2010 school year, Howard had been told several times[2] that he should not be touching female students. Despite these warnings there were multiple reports that he continued the behavior. Howard admitted in his deposition that he touched students and claimed that he was " wired that way."

         In April 2010, the Town began an investigation into allegations that Howard engaged in inappropriate conduct with students. These allegations were brought to the attention of the Town by the director of religious education at St. John the Evangelist Church in Hopkinton. The allegations did not involve Mary but three other students in the church's religion classes. Howard was placed on administrative leave during the investigation. Students, parents and school staff members were interviewed. As a result of the investigation, the Assistant Superintendent, Mary Colombo, filed reports regarding several students with the Department of Children and Family. None of these reports related to Mary, although Mary was interviewed during the investigation. Mary did not reveal instances of sexual misconduct during her interview. She told investigators that Howard was a " fun teacher, " a " really good teacher" and that he made " things understandable." She denied that Howard had asked her to keep any secrets. When asked whether Howard had done or said anything that was not right, Mary responded " not really." There were no follow-up questions to that response.

         Other students did report that Howard engaged in inappropriate conduct, such as rubbing students' shoulders, lower backs and buttocks. It was reported that he often brushed up against students and used obscenities in front of them. The investigation also concluded that Howard had committed other violations of school policy, including smoking cigarettes on school grounds, and improperly storing mercury in his classroom. The school decided that Howard's misconduct was significant enough to warrant dismissal. He resigned. Howard was not at the school from the beginning of the investigation and never returned.

         Up through the 2009-2010 school year, the Town did not train its school administrators, teachers or staff regarding sexual harassment of students. The school only had a ...

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