The parents of a former Mill Middle School student say a French teacher choked their daughter during class last year and have sued the Williamsville Central School District over its handling of the situation.
Scott and Laura Wexler of Amherst contend that district officials didn't adequately punish teacher Bertrand Juillet, didn't report his conduct to authorities as required and failed to sufficiently support their daughter afterward.
Amherst police investigated the Wexlers' complaint and a report 16 months later of a second classroom incident involving Juillet, though no charges were filed in either case.
"I believe that it validates, in an unfortunate fashion, the fact that the school district dropped the ball in how they managed the complaint of our client," said Dennis C. Vacco, one of several attorneys representing the Wexler family.
The Wexlers say their daughter, identified as L.W., remains too distressed to attend Williamsville schools and they seek damages that include payments to cover five years of private school tuition. The district treated the girl "as though her well-being was an afterthought," according to the lawsuit.
A Williamsville schools spokeswoman declined comment on the lawsuit, which was filed in April in State Supreme Court against the district and Juillet.
The district's attorneys, Jody E. Briandi and Anastasia M. McCarthy, denied the Wexlers' allegations in a court filing. The attorneys said school employees were not negligent or otherwise to blame and said the injuries and damages described in the lawsuit were partly or entirely the fault of the plaintiffs' conduct or the risk they assumed.
Juillet declined comment on either incident when reached by The Buffalo News. He did confirm he resigned his teaching position at the end of May.
The incident involving L.W. took place Jan. 26, 2018, at Mill Middle School during a French class taught by Juillet, according to the lawsuit, which provided the following account.
Several students were playing an instructional video game on their Chromebooks, an inexpensive laptop, as part of the class. L.W., who was 12 and in the seventh grade, wasn't playing but was watching the game and tracking the questions asked and the answers given.
As L.W. watched, a classmate asked who was winning. She replied that a student who knew the material better than the other participants was in first place.
Vacco and his colleague Stacey L. Moar say the comment was innocuous and they don't know what, exactly, prompted Juillet to walk up to the girl from behind, put his hands on her neck and briefly choke her while chastising her for her remark.
"It was long enough the victim felt like she couldn't breathe," Moar said.
After the teacher took his hands off and walked away, L.W. texted her mother to tell her what had happened and to say she needed to get out of the classroom. She also turned to another student and said, "Juillet just choked me."
Laura Wexler called the school office, told employees what Juillet had done and asked them to get L.W. out of the class.
L.W. was "visibly shaken, crying and had red marks on her neck" while she waited in the main office for the nurse and her mother.
That night, the school nurse called Laura Wexler to check on L.W. and to apologize for Juillet's conduct.
The Wexlers said they demanded the district report the teacher's "inappropriate" actions to Amherst police and to the State Education Department.
"However, the district never reported the misconduct and then tried to move forward as though it never happened," the lawsuit states.
State Education spokesman JP O'Hare said districts are required twice a year, in January and July, to provide a detailed report on any allegations of corporal punishment and how the district responded to the claims. O'Hare said Williamsville properly reported both incidents involving Juillet.
The Wexlers contend the district failed to ensure L.W. had a safe learning environment and deprived her of her right to an education.
The filing states Juillet immediately was placed on leave but L.W. was unable to return to her French class because of "paralyzing fear and anxiety" exacerbated by the district's refusal to remove photos of Juillet from the entrance to the room.
L.W. was able to take all of her other classes at Mill, but she left the school with about three weeks left in the school year when Juillet returned from his leave, Moar said.
The attorneys said the Wexlers fought to get L.W. transferred to Transit Middle School but Williamsville officials resisted for months before finally agreeing to a mental health transfer. By then, however, the Wexlers had lost their faith in the district.
The Wexlers say they have incurred expenses for the services of physicians and psychiatrists to treat their daughter, along with private school tuition because the prospect of attending a Williamsville school terrifies and sickens her.
"Essentially, she was chased out of the school district as a result of this incident," Vacco said.
The Wexlers also say the district should have been aware that Juillet on several previous occasions acted inappropriately with students, including pushing one student and disparaging another student with Down syndrome. L.W. witnessed some of the incidents, Moar said.
Vacco and Moar said the Wexlers notified police about the choking incident. Amherst police say a detective investigated and consulted with the Erie County District Attorney's Office, but no charges were filed.
This May, Amherst police received a report that Juillet had injured a student when he slammed shut the student's laptop computer to get the attention of an unruly classroom, Capt. Scott Chamberlin said.
One of the student's fingers was caught between the screen and the keyboard as it shut, Chamberlin said, and Juillet immediately took the 12-year-old to the school nurse. A detective investigated and determined that Juillet hadn't intended to hurt the child.
The child's mother told police she didn't want to press charges and believed the district was appropriately handling the matter, Chamberlin said.
Police and district representatives did not name the student involved in the May incident. However, after this article was published Sunday, his mother reached out to The Buffalo News to elaborate on the case and to express her misgivings about how the district addressed the situation.
Karen Marks said her son was 11 and in sixth grade at the time. The students in the class were working on an assignment that required them to take a picture, using their Chromebooks, of a classmate and to write up several observations about the picture in French, she said.
One of the pictures her son and his partner took made them both giggle, Marks said her son later told her. This prompted Juillet to walk across the classroom and slam shut her son's Chromebook, Marks said. She said she doesn't believe Juillet intended to hurt her son, but it's not accurate to say he randomly decided to close her son's laptop.
"I don't think it was an accident," Marks said.
She said she learned of the incident when Juillet called her directly. The teacher in that conversation emphasized it was an accident, Marks said.
She said she called the school nurse for more information, and she later called the principal who assured her that Juillet wasn't in the classroom and that the school was taking care of the situation.
She said the Wexlers had learned of the incident and contacted her the next day. Marks said she hadn't known about the previous incident but it did trouble her that he was allowed to continue teaching.
"I don't think he has the temperament to be around middle schoolers," Marks said.
She said the Wexlers' attorneys asked if she and her husband wanted to file their own suit against the district, but they declined. She said the tips of her son's fingers were sore afterward but he wasn't seriously injured.
She said she and her husband were under the impression that Juillet had been fired.
"I was disappointed that he resigned and not been terminated," Marks said, fearing that this distinction means he's allowed to keep his teaching license.
District spokeswoman Rita M. Wolff said the district would not comment on the latter incident.
Juillet's LinkedIn page states that he served as a French teacher in Williamsville from September 2003 to June 2019.