SPRINGFIELD, NJ — Springfield school officials and a mother who claims her 9-year-old daughter has been bullied will go before a mediator to settle a widely publicized dispute over the girl’s fourth-grade class assignment.
The two sides were ordered into mediation by U.S. District Judge Claire C. Cecchi after Irina Spektor sued the district in federal court earlier this month, according to Spektor’s attorney, David Giles.
Kerri Wright is the outside counsel representing the Springfield School District in the matter. Neither Wright nor Giles would comment on the mediation, including its scheduled date or location.
The row between Spektor and the district has been brewing since September and garnered enough attention that it led to a widely attended school board meeting Nov. 6. During the meeting, the district’s practice of looping, in which students are kept together as a class from one grade to the next, was scrutinized and came under criticism from parents.
Additionally, claims of bullying during the Nov. 6 meeting were the subject of a community forum on cyber bullying at Springfield Town Hall Nov. 27.
Spektor’s suit was filed on Nov. 14 by Giles on behalf of a woman identified in court papers only as “I.S.” and her daughter “E.S.”
Spektor has been very public about her claims regarding her daughter Emma, who has not attended class at Sandmeier Elementary since late September.
The complaint claimed the district violated Irina Spektor’s rights, retaliating against the mother for her public statements by not reassigning the child to a different class.
“By denying plaintiffs’ request for E.S.’s reassignment to another fourth-grade class at Sandmeier and excluding her from Sandmeier solely or at least in part because of plaintiffs’ airing their grievances about the district’s response to their complaints and concerns to the press, the district has violated their First Amendment rights,” the lawsuit claims, and asks the court to order the district to move her into another fourth-grade classroom at Sandmeier.
Irina Spektor’s request to change her daughter’s class assignment stems from bullying she claims transpired last year that was only reported at the start of the new school year in September.
According to Irina Spektor, her daughter was taunted last school year by several of her third-grade classmates. The bullying allegedly began with two girls but eventually included two more girls, according to the lawsuit. The child was teased about her physical appearance, called names, had her school supplies taken and more.
As the class moved on to fourth grade, it was looped, meaning Emma was kept together with the same classmates and teacher and resulting in her refusal to attend school since Sept. 20, Irina Spektor told LocalSource via email on Oct. 31. For approximately two months, she has received home instruction.
Despite Irina Spektor’s claims, the district has said that two investigations, including one from an outside source, could not confirm any harassment, intimidation and/or bullying.
Following the results of the HIB probes, the district asked to have its psychiatrist evaluate Emma in order to potentially reassign her at Sandmeier, according to the lawsuit.
Irina Spektor denied the request, saying her daughter had been evaluated several times by health professionals, which was upsetting to her.
In November, the district offered to transfer Emma to James Caldwell School, another elementary school within the district, which Irina Spektor also denied.
The lawsuit quoted a Nov. 6 email from the district’s outside legal counsel, Kerri Wright, in which she wrote “unfortunately, while we could have — and were prepared to — make more than adequate accommodations for (a) return to her previously assigned classroom … your clients’ media exploits have made that an unacceptable option.”
Wright was quoted in the lawsuit as writing that, due to news reports, the district received several complaints from the parents of other students in Emma’s class.
“Therefore, as a result, the district must respectfully decline the parents’ request to put Emma Spektor back into (Sandmeier),” Wright wrote. “No one, including her doctors, can insure (sic) that she will be safe from psychological or emotional harm if she returns to that school.”
In responding to LocalSource via email on Nov. 27, Wright said both sides have been ordered not to disclose any information about the mediation.
“The mediation is confidential and we have been instructed that all details must remain confidential,” she added
However, she noted that the board is hopeful the Spektors will agree to return their child to school, saying she “belongs in school, which is why the district’s administrators have offered her a reasonable accommodation to allow her to attend the Caldwell School — where she would not have any contact with the students about whom she has spoken in her various media interviews.”
But Wright said the parents have continued to keep the child out of school and the district has provided her with home instruction, in accordance with state law.
“She is being educated,” Wright said. “However, she should be in school.”