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Thomas v. Town of Chelmsford

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

July 25, 2017



          Patti B. Saris Chief United States District Judge

         This suit alleges that the Chelmsford public school system and its employees failed to take sufficient steps to protect a student from a sexual assault at a school-sponsored varsity football camp and from subsequent bullying and harassment by teachers and other students at Chelmsford High School (“CHS”). The individual defendants and the municipal defendants move separately to dismiss.

         The Court ALLOWS in part and DENIES in part the motions to dismiss (Docket Nos. 28, 30).


         I. Parties

         The plaintiffs are Matthew A. Thomas, Jr. (“Matthew”), his father (“Mr. Thomas”), and his mother (“Mrs. Thomas”).

         The municipal defendants are the Town of Chelmsford (“Town”) and the Chelmsford School Committee (“CSC”). The individual defendants are Frank Tiano, the former Superintendent of Chelmsford Public Schools (“CPS”); Charles Caliri, the former Principal of CHS; Jeffery Doherty, the former Dean of CHS; Scott Moreau, the athletic director (“A.D.”) of CHS; Bruce Rich, the former head coach of the football team at CHS; and Anthony Siragusa, Michelle Kender, and Benjamin Cole, teachers at CHS.

         II. Factual Allegations

         With all reasonable inferences are drawn in the plaintiffs' favor, the complaint alleges the following facts, many of which are disputed.

         A. The Sports Culture

         For years, CHS embraced a sports culture that put winning ahead of everything else and encouraged bullying and harassment of student-athletes to make them “tough enough” to win championships. First Amended Complaint (“Compl.”) ¶ 17. The Town, the CSC, and Superintendent Tiano knew about and condoned this “winning” sports culture, in which ordinary rules did not apply to star athletes. Id.

         In September 2012, Matthew enrolled as a freshman at CHS. Id. ¶ 30. Matthew was a special-needs student with an Individualized Education Plan (“IEP”) under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”). Id. In October 2012, during freshman football, three students -- K.M., G.C., and E.S. -- forced another student to urinate in Matthew's cleats. Id. ¶ 32. The Thomas family reported the incident to A.D. Moreau, and the three students were suspended for one game. Id. ¶ 34.

         B. The Rape at Football Camp

         From August 21 to 24, 2013, CHS held its annual football camp at Camp Robindel in Moultonborough, New Hampshire. Id. ¶ 39. The students stayed in bunkhouses with no regular adult supervision, despite CHS having knowledge of hazing and bullying that took place at past football camps. Id. ¶¶ 19, 20, 24, 40. In the bunkhouse, Matthew was hit in the face with powder, and the video recording was posted to social media. Id. ¶ 42. Matthew had his food, iPod, and cellphone stolen. Id. ¶¶ 42, 44. Matthew was pelted with milk and repeatedly picked up by his underwear while others laughed. Id. ¶ 42.

         Matthew reported the stolen iPod to Coach Rich, who took no action. Id. ¶ 43. Matthew reported the stolen cellphone to a coach, who came into the bunkroom and demanded, “Who took the phone?” Id. ¶ 44. K.M. returned the cellphone and was not disciplined. Id.

         On August 23, 2013, Matthew was on his bunk when Z.D. came over to him, held him down, and started twisting his nipples. Id. ¶ 46. K.M. joined in and lifted Matthew's feet so that he could not move. Id. G.C. grabbed Matthew by his arms and legs, and they dragged him into the shower area. Id. G.C. and Z.D. held Matthew down while K.M. tried to insert the end of a broomstick into Matthew's anus. Id. Matthew screamed and resisted, but nobody came to his assistance. Id. Then, K.M. and Z.D. held down Matthew while G.C. inserted the end of the broomstick into Matthew's anus. Id. ¶ 47. No adult was nearby during this approximately twenty-minute episode. Id. ¶ 49.

         Later that day, another student threw Matthew's cellphone to K.M., who rubbed the cellphone on his testicles and threw it back to Matthew. Id. ¶ 50. K.M. then came over to Matthew, placed his knee on Matthew's chest, exposed his genitalia, and rubbed his testicles on Matthew's chin. Id.

         That evening, Matthew told his parents about some of his problems at camp. Id. ¶ 51. Mr. Thomas started driving out to Camp Robindel, but Coach Rich called him and told him that he wanted the opportunity to handle the issues himself. Id. Mr. Thomas agreed. Id. When Coach Rich raised the issue with the students, K.M. yelled at Matthew and called him a “liar.” Id. ¶ 52. Coach Rich told K.M. to just apologize, which K.M. did. Id.

         On August 24, 2013, Coach Rich told Mr. Thomas that the issues were taken care of. Id. ¶ 53. Coach Rich also told Mr. Thomas that K.M. was one of his “special players” who needed to remain on the team because sports helped keep him out of trouble. Id.

         That night, Matthew told his parents about the broomstick incident. Id. ¶ 55. On August 25, 2013, Mrs. Thomas emailed Coach Rich to demand that he investigate. Id. ¶ 57. In the email, Mrs. Thomas told Coach Rich that if the issue was not adequately resolved by noon the next day, she would report to the police, the CSC, and Superintendent Tiano. Id. Later that night, Mrs. Thomas spoke with Coach Rich, who apologized. Id. ¶ 58.

         On the morning of August 26, 2013, Mrs. Thomas forwarded her previous day's email to A.D. Moreau and stated that she would report to the police, the CSC, and Superintendent Tiano if she did not hear from him or Coach Rich by noon. Id. ¶ 59. That morning, A.D. Moreau called Mrs. Thomas and stated that CHS would look into the incident but that he did not want it reported to the police. Id. ¶ 60. His words were: “Don't go to the police. You need to give us more time.” Id. The Thomas family agreed. Id.

         That afternoon, while the Thomas family was waiting for a meeting with A.D. Moreau, Coach Rich came by and told Matthew, “You will get through this. We will get through this. This is part of growing up.” Id. ¶ 61. The Thomas family then met with CHS Deans Jeffery Doherty, Joshua Blagg, and Heather Galante. Id. ¶ 63. The Thomas family explained to the Deans what had happened to Matthew. Id. The Deans instructed the Thomas family not to speak to anyone about the matter. Id. The Deans did not explain how they would handle the situation other than to say the perpetrators would not be in any of Matthew's classes. Id. CHS did not report the incident to the police. Id. ¶ 64.

         On August 27, 2013, the Thomas family reported the Camp Robindel incident to the police. Id. ¶ 66. The Middlesex District Attorney's Office contacted the Moultonborough Police Department and started an investigation. Id. ¶ 67.

         On August 28, 2013, CPS took written statements from two of the students involved in the Camp Robindel incident. Id. ¶ 68. One of them wrote that Matthew was lying about everything. Id. The other admitted that he hit Matthew with a broomstick around “his butt/back of thigh” but he “didn't see that it had left a mark.” Id. He wrote, “I am not proud of what I did, but I am also not sorry for what I did to Matt. Thinking back on it I was teaching him a lesson.” Id.

         On August 30, 2013, Deans Doherty, Blagg, and Galante produced a “Summary Report” on the school's internal investigation into the Camp Robindel incident. Id. ¶ 74. This report allegedly “whitewashed” the incident by failing to describe the details of the broomstick incident, how Matthew came to be lying prone on the floor of the bathroom, and why there was no adult supervision. Id. ¶ 75.

         C. Post-Incident Bullying and Harassment

         Around this time, other CHS students began to hear about the camp incident. Id. ¶ 71. Students began to make comments about how Matthew was lying and started to call him “Broomstick, ” in reference to the assault. Id. ¶¶ 71, 73. Comments on the Camp Robindel incident also began to appear on social media. E.g., id. ¶ 77 (“What's up with high school boys sticking stuff up each other's asses these days?”)

         On September 3, 2013, Mrs. Thomas contacted Principal Caliri to ask how Matthew would be protected at school. Id. ¶ 79. Principal Caliri did not provide any answers. Id.

         On September 4, 2013, Matthew went to school and learned that K.M. was registered in two of his classes. Id. ¶ 80. Although K.M. was not in school, Matthew was present in both classes as K.M.'s name was called. Id. The Thomas family demanded that K.M. be transferred. Id.

         Various students at school continued to make derogatory sexual comments to Matthew about the Camp Robindel incident, and social media postings about the incident continued. E.g., Id. ¶¶ 81 (“Hey Broomstick! How is your asshole? Did it hurt?”), 83 (“You are so annoying you got a pole shoved up your ass at football camp.”), 88 (“Matt Thomas went to camp a tight end and came back a wide receiver.”), 108 (“Hey look, is that the kid that got fucked by the broomstick?”), 120 (students said that they heard that Matthew was raped with a “big black dildo” and asked Matthew if he “liked it and if he wanted it again”). Much of the bullying came from lacrosse players, wrestlers, and football players. Id. ¶ 131. Students also made threats of violence against Matthew. Id. ¶¶ 151, 159. The Thomas family reported these incidents to Dean Doherty throughout the school year but each time, Dean Doherty took no action and did not follow up with the family. Id. ¶¶ 81, 82, 83, 104, 108, 120, 152, 160. On one occasion, Dean Doherty told Matthew that Matthew should report incidents to him, not to his mother. Id. ¶ 81.

         The first media report on the Camp Robindel incident appeared on September 9, 2013. Id. ¶ 85. An unidentified source told the newspaper that the allegations were of “a very juvenile nature” although some aspects were “sexual in nature.” Id. Later that day, Superintendent Tiano emailed the members of the CSC to inform them of the media coverage and to say that CPS did a “tremendous job” in its internal investigation. Id. ¶ 86. He also promised to keep the CSC updated on the criminal investigation. Id. Superintendent Tiano also issued a press release that stated that CPD “will continue to take seriously the safety of each and every student under our care.” Id.

         On the morning of September 10, 2013, media outlets appeared at CHS. Id. ¶ 89. Nobody from CPS informed the Thomas family about the media's presence, and Matthew arrived at school wearing a CHS football shirt. Id. Principal Caliri announced that the media would not approach any student on school grounds and that no student had to speak with the media. Id. ¶ 91. Nobody from CHS spoke to Matthew about the media or offered to help him avoid the media. Id. That afternoon, a reporter approached Matthew as he exited CHS alone. Id. ¶ 92. Matthew declined to discuss the Camp Robindel incident and walked away, but the reporter followed him and continued to ask him questions. Id. The Thomas family reported the incident to Dean Doherty and asked how the media was at the CHS entrance. Id. ¶ 93. Dean Doherty responded, “They were not supposed to be. I guess no one was watching.” Id.

         That evening, the CSC had its first meeting since the media broke the story about the Camp Robindel incident. Id. ¶ 94. A prepared press release was read, and the CSC made no further comments. Id. This was the only time the CSC addressed the allegations during the 2013 to 2014 school year, despite individual members of the CSC being informed at various points in the year about the difficulties that Matthew was having at school. Id. ¶ 94, 133.

         On September 11, 2013, Matthew was interviewed by the Middlesex District Attorney's Office. Id. ¶ 96. Police investigators had trouble interviewing CPS personnel, however, because they were uncooperative with the investigation. Id. ¶ 97. For example, the Moltonborough Police Department tried to set up an interview date but was told that CPS personnel would be at an away football game. Id. In fact, those particular CPS personnel were not at the game. Id.

         D. Alleged Misconduct by Teachers and Administrators

         On September 12, 2013, Mrs. Thomas met with Dean Doherty. Id. ¶ 98. K.M., G.C., and Z.D. had been suspended for ten days and were soon expected to return to school, and the Thomas family was worried about Matthew's safety. Id. Dean Doherty assured Mrs. Thomas that CHS would ensure Matthew's safety. Id. The Thomas family also met with Superintendent Tiano to discuss how Matthew would be protected. Id. ¶ 100. Superintendent Tiano told Mr. Thomas: “We have teachers in the hallway that monitor things and he will be fine.” Id. The Thomas family asked that K.M., G.C., and Z.D. be assigned to the CHS annex, a separate learning area away from the general student body where problematic students are assigned. Id. ¶ 101. That request was not granted. Id. In a September 13, 2013 follow-up email, Dean Doherty told Mrs. Thomas that Matthew could leave class at any time to speak with him and that “I will be in the hallways discreetly checking on him, so if something is not going well he can give a slight shake of his head to signal me.” Id. ¶ 102.

         Also on September 13, 2013, Spanish teacher Siragusa singled out Matthew in front of the whole class and told Matthew to keep quiet and to stop moving, even though he was causing no disruption. Id. ¶ 103. Matthew became upset and left class. Id. After Matthew returned to class, Siragusa had his class translate from English to Spanish: “Matt went to football camp. Matt called his parents. Why did Matt call home?” Id. The Thomas family reported the Siragusa comments to Dean Doherty. Id. ¶ 105. Dean Doherty apologized for Siragusa's actions, stating that Siragusa “feels badly for what had happened.” Id. Matthew was removed from Siragusa's class and ended up having to repeat Spanish the following school year. Id. ¶ 106.

         On September 16, 2013, K.M., Z.D., and G.C. returned to school from their suspensions. Id. ¶ 107. They were suspended from the football team for the season. Id. There was no safety plan for Matthew, and neither Dean Doherty nor any monitors were keeping watch in the hallways, as Superintendent Tiano and Dean Doherty had promised. Id.

         On September 20, 2013, Superintendent Tiano informed the CSC that he would not make any further communication to parents about the Camp Robindel incident “in the absence of any new information” to avoid generating “another news cycle.” Id. ¶ 109. Superintendent Tiano did not inform the CSC of the bullying and harassment of Matthew. Id.

         On September 30, 2013, Matthew was yelled at by his science teacher, Kender. Id. ¶ 111. After two other students got into an argument, Kender took Matthew into the hallway and screamed that he was an “instigator” who was causing all sorts of “trouble” and that she “was sick of it.” Id. When Matthew tried to speak, Kender told him to “be quiet.” Id. The Thomas family reported the incident to Dean Doherty, who said he would look into it. Id. ¶ 111. Dean Doherty later told Mrs. Thomas that he had spoken to Kender and hoped that there would be no further issues. Id. ¶ 112.

         In early October 2013, Moreau swore at Matthew after he tossed a packet of snacks to a friend. Id. ¶ 113. Moreau yelled, “No Matt, get the hell out of the hallway and go back to your fucking locker room!” Id. The incident was reported to CPS. Id.

         On November 5, 2013, Mrs. Thomas informed Dean Doherty of new problems that Matthew was having with Kender, who was questioning his study habits and failing to comply with Matthew's IEP. Id. ¶¶ 122-24. Dean Doherty informed Mrs. Thomas that Matthew would get a peer tutor. Id. ¶ 125.

         On November 18, 2013, Kender watched a student hit Matthew with a shoe in her class. Id. ¶ 126. Kender walked away, appeared happy, and did not discipline the student. Id. The Thomas family reported the incident to Dean Doherty, who took no action. Id.

         In November and December 2013, Z.D. made constant vulgar comments toward two of Matthew's friends. Id. ¶ 127. The students reported the incidents to Dean Doherty, who took no action. Id. ¶¶ 128, 129.

         Through the end of 2013 and early 2014, CHS teachers were falsely told that the criminal case was over and that Matthew had made everything up. Id. ¶ 132. The complaint does not state who allegedly made these statements.

         In early March 2014, Mr. Thomas contacted A.D. Moreau to discuss how CHS was going to keep Matthew safe during the upcoming lacrosse season, as Matthew, K.M., and G.C. all played. Id. ¶ 134. Moreau responded that since the school had determined that there was no wrongdoing by K.M., G.C., and Z.D., there was nothing he could do but that there would be adults in the locker room. Id. ¶ 137.

         During lacrosse tryouts, Matthew was mocked and ridiculed by K.M., G.C., and other players. Id. ¶ 138. K.M. was injured and was not trying out, but he was still present on the sideline. Id. The coaches were aware of K.M. and G.C.'s actions but did nothing to stop them. Id.

         On March 19, 2014, Mr. Thomas emailed CPS to express his concerns about lacrosse tryouts. Id. ¶ 139. A.D. Moreau responded that coaches were supervising the players, including from the coaches' room by the locker room area. Id. ¶ 140. But the coaches' room did not have windows and the door was typically kept closed and locked, so someone inside the coaches' room would not be able to see or hear what was going on in the locker room. Id.

         After this date, Matthew's coaches treated him differently and regularly expressed anger at him. Id. ¶ 141. K.M. was with the team throughout the season even though he was not playing or practicing, and he continued to taunt Matthew. Id. ¶ 142.

         In April 2014, Z.D. continued making sexually explicit and threatening comments to two of Matthew's friends. Id. ¶ 144. When Dean Doherty received reports about those incidents, Dean Doherty told one of the students to “man up and try to go to lacrosse practice” and that the incident was just “boys just being boys.” Id. ¶ 145.

         Harassment of Matthew increased in frequency and severity in late April 2014. Id. ¶ 149. Matthew reported to Dean Doherty that he perceived threatening actions not only from Z.D. and his friends, but also Cole, a teacher. Id. ¶¶ 149, 151, 153-56, 158. Specifically, there was one occasion when Matthew was in the CHS library with friends, and Cole approached and started talking to Matthew's friends while staring intently at Matthew. Id. ¶ 154. On many days, Cole stood outside Matthew's history class and intently stared at Matthew and his friends as they entered history class. Id. ¶ 155. On one occasion outside of school, Cole approached a friend of Matthew who was fishing and said “It's better to have a pole in your hands than up your ass.” Id. ¶ 156.

         At lacrosse practice, a senior captain tried to take Matthew out each time they lined up against each other in a drill, to cheers of the team. Id. ¶ 159. On one occasion, the captain went up to Matthew, yanked his facemask, and yelled in his face that he “was going to fucking kill him” if Matthew did not quit the team. Id. These incidents were reported to the school and to the coach, who took no action. Id. ¶ 160. Soon thereafter, Matthew was suspended for two games, with the given reason being an unspecified incident that the captain supposedly reported to the coach. Id. ¶ 161.

         On May 5, 2014, Kender interrupted a conversation that Matthew was having with a classmate who had gotten into trouble. Id. ¶ 163. Kender said, “Oh, Mattie, you throw people under the bus.” Id. Kender told Matthew that he “had bad character” and told him that he should have talked to the person instead of “telling on him.” Id. She then gave a speech to the class suggesting that “children who report something are snitches and are the worst type of person.” Id. Mrs. Thomas sent an email to Dean Doherty about this incident, but Dean Doherty did not respond. Id. ¶ 165.

         On May 6, 2014, a student slapped Matthew in the head and knocked off his hat. Id. ¶ 164. He looked straight at Matthew and said, “Take that shit off.” Id. Matthew reported this incident to Dean Doherty, who said he would look into it. Id.

         On May 27, 2014, someone wrote graffiti relating to Matthew and the Camp Robindel incident in a CHS bathroom. Id. ¶ 168 (“Matt Thomas likes it in the ass.”). The incident was reported to the CHS dean's office, which reported the incident to the police. Id. This was the twenty-fourth incident that Matthew and his family reported to CPS during the 2013 to 2014 school year. Id. ¶ 169.

         On June 5, 2014, Mrs. Thomas learned that Kender had given Matthew a failing grade on a lab report when Matthew's partner had received a perfect score for the same report. Id. ¶ 171. Mrs. Thomas reported to Dean Doherty and Principal Caliri that Matthew was being targeted and singled out by Kender. Id.

         E. Transfer to Another School

         At the conclusion of the 2013 to 2014 school year, the Thomas family decided to transfer Matthew to Central Catholic High School because they believed that Matthew was not safe at CHS and CHS was not meeting his educational needs. Id. ¶ 172. Matthew had to repeat his sophomore year at Central Catholic. Id. ¶ 188.

         In about August 2014, K.M., G.C., and Z.D. pleaded guilty in their criminal cases in juvenile court. Id. ¶ 190. K.M. and G.C. pleaded guilty to a felony and a Class A misdemeanor charge, while Z.D. pleaded guilty to two Class A misdemeanor charges. Id. Three months later, in November 2014, K.M. was honored for his sportsmanship and leadership at a Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association event at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, MA. Id. ¶¶ 202-03.

         CHS students continued to harass Matthew when Central Catholic played CHS in football and lacrosse. Id. ¶¶ 200, 209, 229. At the CHS-Central Catholic sophomore football game in September 2014, Mrs. Thomas was taking photos on the sideline when A.D. Moreau told her that she could not have her younger children on the sideline and that she could not be taking pictures there. Id. ¶ 199. However, other parents were allowed to remain doing exactly what Mrs. Thomas was doing. Id. ¶ 201.

         On August 7, 2015, the Thomas family sent the Town and CSC a presentment letter, which was confidential because it referenced juvenile proceedings. Id. ¶ 210. The media reported on the presentment letter. Id. ¶ 212. In an August 21, 2015 local newspaper story, Salvatore Lupoli, a CHS assistant football coach and CSC member, stated that he hoped “that people will consider these young men innocent until proven guilty.” Id. ¶ 214. Sometime soon after, the local newspaper anonymously received an unredacted copy of the presentment letter. Id. ¶ 216. Only the Thomas family, the Town, and the CSC had the letter. Id. ¶ 216. In response to a September 11, 2015 newspaper editorial, Lisa Vecchione, the sister of Moreau, published a statement (although it is unclear where): “The allegations ...

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