By Kelly Wheeler
City News Service
A jury refused Wednesday to award damages to a former La Jolla Country Day student who claimed she was bullied by classmates and that the school retaliated against her when she complained, but did find the school negligent.
Desiree Bagby, now 18, sued in 2009, alleging she suffered emotional distress at the hands of top LJCD administrators and that the school breached its contract with her to re-enroll for her junior year.
After a four-week trial, jurors found that school headmaster Christopher Schuck and high school principal Roderick Jemison were not out of line in their dealings with Bagby, but found that LJCD was negligent and breached its contract with her.
Both sides claimed victory.
"This was the end of a very long process in which the school continually said that this was not a case of bullying, and the jury fully agreed,'' said Chris Lavin, director of communications and marketing for La Jolla Country Day.
"This was a young woman who, unfortunately, was facing expulsion from the school and chose to develop a case with her family using things that the jury has rejected, as a way of criticizing the school, Lavin said.
"We had to stand up in court and defend ourselves against one of our own clients, never a good day for the school. But we had to do it because we have to discipline our students," Lavin said. "Ms. Bagby was facing disciplinary problems, from the theft of beer, from distribution of beer to
other students, cheating on exams, and at some point, the school has to say enough is enough."
Bagby said she was happy that she got her day in court.
"I'm just happy that I got to share my side of the story," she said. "And I just hope that other kids that this is happening to will have the courage to speak up, as well.''
Her attorney, Joane Garcia-Colson said the case was a victory because the jury found LJCD negligent, even though it did not award any monetary damages.
Bagby had asked for $1 million.
"If this bullying epidemic sweeping the country is going to be stopped, people like Desiree have to stand up and have to speak out," the attorney said. "And the more people who do that, maybe schools will make some changes to protect our kids."
Bagby testified that she found slurs and a penis sketched on her car. She also alleged a student nearly ran her down in a school parking lot; that she was threatened via the Internet; and that someone put a dead rat in her locker.
Lavin said it turned out to be mouse.
Attorney John Collins, representing the school, told jurors in his closing argument on Monday that the lawsuit was a "misuse'' of the justice system and was filed to get back at the school.
"They (school administrators) followed protocol to the letter,'' Collins said.
He told jurors that the girl's father told his daughter's adviser at La Jolla Country Day that his goal in filing the lawsuit was to drag the school through the mud.
Collins said most of the witnesses in the trial contradicted Desiree Bagby's testimony that she was bullied and that the school didn't do enough about it.
Bagby was suspended for five days for stealing beer and drinking during a school-sponsored trip to Ecuador and yelling an obscenity at a heckler during a school soccer game, according to court testimony.
A recommendation to expel Bagby was overturned, but she was ultimately asked to withdraw from the school, which she did.
Bagby claimed she did not get a re-enrollment contract for her junior year, but Collins said the school principal sent one to her home a day after he was told she did not get one.
Garcia-Colson told the jury that the school wanted to make an example out of her.
The attorney said Babgy was humiliated when her soccer coach suspended her for missing a game.
By not notifying the Bagbys that their daughter wasn't getting a contract to re-enroll at the school, administrators "broke their own rules" and "betrayed" Bagby, her attorney argued.
According to Garcia-Colson, school officials failed to discipline three girls who admitted defacing Bagby's car.
The girls told school administrators they did so after she wrote on their cars, but that no one asked Bagby for her side of the story because she was the "bad girl from Ecuador," according to Garcia-Colson.
Administrators concluded that Bagby, also a member of the cheer team, was a "bad child" and "they needed to get rid of her," the attorney said.
Bagby, who wants to be a child-advocate attorney, said she plans to resume her college career at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.