Attorneys for a 13-year-old boy with limb deformities who was allegedly taunted and bullied nonstop at a private Catholic school by his teacher and fellow students have served the school with legal papers.
While the lawsuit against Sacred Heart School in Taftville has not yet been filed with the courts, its principal, the teacher and the superintendent of the Norwich Roman Catholic Diocese were served with the papers on Monday, according to attorney Jamie Sullivan.
Patrick Cote, who was born with Vacterl syndrome, a rare ailment with symptoms including limb abnormalities, was made fun of the better part of the seventh and eighth grade, said Sullivan, managing partner of Howard, Kohn, Sprague & FitzGerald in Hartford. Cote has multiple physical anomalies including a plastic thumb on his right hand and no thumb on his left hand. Cote’s social skills and academic ability are also affected because of his ailment, Sullivan said.
Cote was removed from the school for part of the seventh grade due to the harassment, but returned in the eighth grade when principal Christina Van Beck assured the family the teasing, taunting and bullying would be addressed. That never happened, Sullivan said, In fact, the attorney said, the situation was made worse by his new eighth grade teacher, Robin Wojtcuk.
Wojtcuk was out of state on Thursday. The Connecticut Law Tribune asked a secretary at the school to reach out to Wojtcuk for comment. But, at presstime, Wojtcuk had not responded. In addition, Van Beck and Henry Fiore, superintendent of the Norwich Roman Catholic Diocese, both referred comment to Michael Stramiello, who is with the diocese’s communications office. The diocese runs the Catholic school. Stramiello did not respond to several calls for comment Thursday.
Wojtcuk’s comments and actions led more students to bully Cote, the pending lawsuit states.
The suit says Wojtcuk “chastised Patrick in front of his classmates, saying, ‘I know you feel like you’re constantly picked on, but all of us are just trying to help you behave and your quirkiness makes us go ‘hmmmm’ sometimes.”’
The lawsuit said that “everyone laughed at this, and when Patrick said he wanted to be accepted for who he is, defendant Wojtcuk said this was unacceptable and [said,] ‘That’s where I draw the line.”’
The teacher, the lawsuit said, also told the boy he was making poor choices, needed to learn self-control and “must learn some social graces.”
Another incident of alleged wrongdoing on the part of Wojtcuk, the lawsuit says, was an episode in which the teacher said Cote was threatening her with a pair of scissors after he held them up in the air to demonstrate the verb “to cut,” which students were studying. “She yelled, ‘Are you threatening me?’ and grabbed the scissors from his hand and threw them in the trash.” The suit also says the teacher ridiculed Cote for his writing capabilities, even though the boy was born without thumbs.
The verbal abuse by the teacher, the lawsuit and Sullivan said, occurred for months and caused the boy to have suicidal thoughts.
The teacher “continued to publicly harass Patrick in front of kids who have already iced him out and harassed him for over a year,” the lawsuit said.
Sullivan said Cote’s parents. Joseph and Kathleen Cote, who are educators themselves, asked Van Beck to have a plan in place to allow their son to not have to deal directly with his teacher. Wojtcuk, the lawsuit says, “appeared resentful of the new plan, and was uncooperative in sharing assignments with the Cotes while lying to [principal] Mother Christina about what she does and says.” The school, Sullivan said, did not accommodate the Cotes like they should have to protect their son.
Sullivan said the school had just one option as it related to Wojtcuk and that was to fire her.
“They should have gotten rid of her as the eighth-grade teacher,” Sullivan said, adding, “I’m assuming they kept her because of the burden in getting a new teacher and for the disruption it would have caused the class. In this case, it was completely necessary and justified.”
The lawsuit cites three counts: negligence, violation of the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act and intentional infliction of emotional distress against Wojtcuk, The suit seeks unspecified money and punitive damages.
Patrick Cote will be attending Norwich Free Academy High School in the fall.