Family sues Bristol Warren district over son’s suspension

Bristol family suing school district for negligence, violating son’s rights

By Christy Nadalin
Posted 1/21/20

Jodi and Michael Camelo of Bristol are suing the Bristol Warren Regional School District for what they assert was an egregious mishandling of a disciplinary issue last school year with their son, …

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Family sues Bristol Warren district over son’s suspension

Bristol family suing school district for negligence, violating son’s rights

Posted

Jodi and Michael Camelo of Bristol are suing the Bristol Warren Regional School District for what they assert was an egregious mishandling of a disciplinary issue last school year with their son, Parker, at the time an eighth-grade student at Kickemuit Middle School.

They want other families to know that if this can happen to them, it can happen to anyone.

“I’m not one of these mothers who thinks their kids can do no wrong,” said Ms. Camelo. “We discipline the boys when we need to.”

Parker is the second of three sons, and according to his parents, disciplining Parker isn’t something the Camelos need to do all that often. Polite and well-spoken, his school reports as recently as the quarter prior to the incident in question are that of an honor roll student athlete who played by the rules, in and out of the classroom. The teacher comment section of his report card reads like every parent’s dream: “Respectful,” “Responsible student,” “A pleasure in class,” “Cooperative.”

He even received glowing comments from the teacher in the math class which later became the scene of the misbehavior that would, according to the Camelos and their attorney, be blown wildly out of proportion and lead to a violation of their son’s civil rights, including his right to due process and equal protection under the law.

The precipitating incident occurred in a math class taught by a young and inexperienced teacher. The Camelos claim that behavior in that classroom had become unruly long before the date of the incident, with students routinely acting up and speaking out in a chaotic environment, Parker included.

“Parker’s never had any trouble in school. I’ve never gotten a call from anyone,” said Ms. Camelo. “Come this year, he had this class and he told me, this math class is kind of crazy. He wanted to get out of it. But being a mom who is also a teacher, I’m trying to teach my kids to do the right thing. I told him to roll with it and rise above it.”

Still, Ms. Camelo was concerned about this class, so sometime in the fall of 2018, she checked in with the teacher. She was told Parker was “a little bit silly” in class.

“I punished him for a week,” Ms. Camelo said. “I told him that was not acceptable.” Soon after, they received a note from the teacher which began: “Parker has been much better behaved in class!” The Camelos thought the issue was resolved.

Then came the particularly bad day in math class, on April 10, 2019. According to the Camelos, that particular class was a madhouse that day. Parker and one other boy were wrestling in the back of the classroom. At one point, the other boy yelled at Parker “get your dick out of my face!” The boys were brought in for questioning by school authorities, and not long after, the math teacher and the district parted ways, according to the Camelos. It would be two weeks, however, before Jodi and Mike Camelo were made aware that Parker was in serious trouble.

Suspended indefinitely

It was around April 24 when the Camelos were informed that Parker was being asked to stay home from school, pending an investigation into allegations that he exposed himself in class. Horrified by the allegations, the Camelos grounded their son, took away his phone, and awaited instructions from Principal Christine Homen and Superintendent of Schools Mario Andrade, who according to the Camelos, promised them “your son’s rights will be protected.”

On April 29, a Monday, Parker returned to school, and the Camelos received an emailed update from Principal Homen suggesting that he was having a good day, on his best behavior. But that night, Superintendent Andrade called to say that Parker could not return on Tuesday, and the matter was in the hands of the school district’s attorneys.

On May 1, the Camelos received a letter from Superintendent Andrade which detailed the conversation of April 29 and read, in part: “Your son is to have no contact with the girls in the Algebra class and he is not allowed on school grounds, at school-sponsored sports, activities, and he must abide by the other restrictions as defined by Social Suspensions.

“At this time, I do not consider this a suspension. However, based on information that I have received, I feel that it is necessary to remove you (sic) son from the school while the investigation is ongoing.”

In addition, Mr. Andrade told the Camelos that they would be contacted by Aubrey Lombardo, an attorney with the school district’s firm of Henneous, Carroll, and Lombardo, who would be conducting an investigation into the alleged “exposure.”

“I tried to get in touch with their lawyer, which I finally did after a couple of days,” said Ms. Camelo. “I was told this is a process. I couldn’t rush the process, and the investigation was going to take three to four weeks.

“I asked how it could take that long, and she said, ‘if I rush it, it will be bad for Parker, so you don’t want me to rush it’.”

“That’s when I panicked, called Mike, and said ‘we need a lawyer’.”

According to the lawsuit since submitted by Brandon Bell, the Camelos’ attorney, “At no time did Defendants [the school district] share any of the statements or allegations to Plaintiff(s) [the Camelos] as required to satisfy the most basic of their due process rights.”

It would be another half-month before Parker was contacted by Aubrey Lombardo. In that time, the other students in the math classroom were contacted. All but one denied witnessing an “exposure,” including the student with whom Parker was wrestling. Accrording to the Camelos, the student has said he doesn’t know why he made that remark about Parker, he regrets saying it, and regardless, he witnessed no exposure, despite the fact that he was rolling around on the floor with Parker at the time of the alleged “exposure.”

Police get involved

It was around this time that the Camelos say they received a phone call from the Warren Police Department. According to the suit, “It was never made clear what investigative materials the Warren Police Department were relying on or who made a criminal case referral to them. However, the Warren detective relayed that her investigation started as a felony/delinquency sexual predator probe into Parker and another boy in the aforementioned algebra class. The detective was quick to relay to Parker’s attorney that they were not moving forward on the sex crimes, but were still charging Parker with a minimum of disorderly conduct for alleged behavioral issues in eighth-grade algebra class.”

The suit continues: “Later the same day (May 16, 2019) Parker, his parents and counsel met for hours with Defendant BWRSD’s attorney investigator to answer questions she had regarding allegations made against Parker … It was made very clear in that meeting that the aforementioned attorney investigator did not believe the sexual criminal allegation against Parker was credible. However, the Charade continued about what occurred in an eighth-grade algebra class in which the kids were running the classroom with an inexperienced teacher who was herself removed long after misbehavior by kids became a norm in her classroom.”

Cut to the chase

By mid-May it was clear that virtually nobody believed Parker had exposed himself to anyone, including Mario Andrade, who the Camelos have on an audio recording saying that it was clear at this point that “there was no exposure.” That week the Camelos sat down in a meeting with the school district’s attorney, Ms. Lombardo, as well as their attorney. Ms. Lombardo allegedly had compiled a laundry list of 30 complaints of alleged behaviors by boys in the math class — not just Parker — that included everything from throwing pencils and stealing Twizzlers, to using racial slurs. “Exposure” was not on the list.

“Lombardo read off this long list of accusations, and our lawyer said, ‘Cut to the chase, what about the exposure?’ ” said Mr. Camelo. “You kept this kid out of school for 35 days, and you have nothing.”

With allegedly nothing more to go on, the district offered to let Parker come back to school, but with one large condition. According to the suit, “Defendant Andrade authorized the BWRSD attorneys to offer what he referred to as restorative justice for Parker and his ‘victims.’ He sent over a plan which named many students who were allegedly in fear of Parker … he offered to have Parker return to school in late May or early June under very restrictive conditions, including but not limited to no-contact orders, change of academic teams and a rigid program sponsored by Day One, the state’s premiere sexual trauma center.”

This “safety plan,” which the district asked the Camelos to sign, named seven girls who were allegedly in fear of Parker — several of whom the Camelos knew to be supportive of their son. “Four mothers called and told Mario to take their names off the list,” said Mr. Camelo. “When we asked who authorized him to put those names on the safety plan, Mario said that they were ‘forwarded to me by the administration or Aubrey.’ He didn’t even know.”

Family refuses invitation to return

The Camelos refused to sign a safety plan which, to them, read like an admission of guilt suggesting that their son was some sort of sexual predator. “This is what they thought I was going to sign?” Mr. Camelo said.

As a result, Parker was not allowed to return to Kickemuit Middle School for the remainder of the 2018-2019 year. “He was the captain of the baseball team; they took him off that. He had been working all year to represent the school at Civics Day. He was not allowed on band trips. Everything from April on was taken away,” Ms. Camelo said through tears.

“They didn’t let him graduate with his class,” said Mr. Camelo. “I can’t even talk about that. What was he going to do at graduation?”

The Camelos’ lawsuit was filed in Rhode Island Superior Court but the school district quickly requested that it be moved to federal court — which the court approved. According to the Camelos’ attorney, the federal court can be more favorable to the district’s side of the case. Named defendants include the Bristol Warren Regional School District, by and through its Director of Finance Raquel Pellerin, and the Bristol Warren Regional School Committee, by and through its treasurer Brian Bradshaw. Individually named are Superintendent Mario Andrade, Principal Christine Homen and school committee chairwoman Erin Schofield. Ms. Schofield is the only individually-named party remaining with the school district, as both Principal Homen and Superintendent Andrade tendered their resignations at the end of the 2018-2019 school year.

“They spent thousands of dollars to investigate my son. Any they came up with nothing. And as far as I’m concerned, the police could have done this in a matter of days. But they kept this in house so they could control what was going on,” said Mr. Camelo.

“If they had given him a short suspension, I would have said nothing. Learn your lesson, don’t act like an idiot in class. He did not deserve this,” said Ms. Camelo.

They want an apology

The Camelos are thankful that Parker has taken this all in stride, and has successfully transitioned into the high school. For that, they credit Parker’s resilience, the overwhelming support of his classmates, and the leadership of Principal Deborah DiBiase.

But despite having the middle school experience behind them, the Camelos don’t want the district to sweep this case under the rug.

“The most important thing that we want you to understand was that we didn’t want litigation,” said Mr. Camelo. “What we were looking for was an apology. But the problem with an apology from a public figure is that it’s an admission of guilt — and they made a serious accusation against a boy. You and I know, that when a boy or man is accused of something like this, the presumption of innocence does not exist. You know how difficult it is to clear your name from something like this.

“All I want is for them to publicly clear his name and apologize.”

Representing the school committee and the administration, new Superintendent of Schools Jonathan Brice released a statement that reads, “The consistent position of the Bristol Warren Regional School District is to refrain from making public statements concerning pending lawsuits, especially lawsuits involving students. This matter will proceed in an open forum in Federal Court, at which time the district will present its position, and all relevant facts will be provided as a part of that proceeding.”

The Camelos are looking forward to their day in court.

“I want it on record that you pulled my kid out of school. He didn’t graduate with his class. He lost tons. And nobody knows that he’s innocent of what they accused him of,” said Mr. Camelo.

“Our son has to be exonerated. Not just for today — for his future.”

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