Bullying: State, feds investigate Central Unified discrimination allegations

The Fresno BeeMarch 22, 2014 

Marissa Morris

JOHN WALKER — Fresno Bee Staff Photo Buy Photo

A Central High School East Campus senior who says she has been relentlessly bullied by students and a teacher for two years — so severely that she developed an eating disorder and tried to commit suicide — is pushing for change at the school.

Marissa Morris, 17, who has Tourette's syndrome and a history of depression, maintains that her theater teacher, Sarah Pullen, has for years avoided following her mandatory special education plan and allowed students to antagonize her during class.

Now, the state Department of Education is investigating Central Unified on charges that the district violated state special education code. The federal Office for Civil Rights is conducting a separate investigation on charges of sexual discrimination.

The complaint filed with the state alleges Pullen refused to sign progress reports required under Marissa's education plan — which is mandated by law for special education students to keep them safe and healthy in school.

The complaint also alleges the school neglected to prevent harassment and that a school counselor violated part of the special education plan that allows the teen to seek counseling at any time.

The federal civil rights office is investigating based on charges that Marissa was bullied through social media sites like Twitter and Facebook by her theater class peers.

Central Unified Superintendent Mike Berg said he is looking forward to a third-party review of the case, but declined to comment on specific allegations. The district could not discuss if any students were disciplined in connection to bullying allegations.

"We always respect the right of any student or parent to file a complaint requesting a review of administrative practices and/or decisions," he said in a statement. Pullen and Central High East Principal Jack Kelejian declined to comment.

Marissa said her tormentors have harassed her in person as well as online.

"I've never had a healthy relationship with food and I got called fat in one of the tweets," she said. "At the time, I was struggling with binge and purge and two years before that, I had a suicide attempt. I slashed my wrists, I did not feel like living anymore. I was tired of the bullying."

Marissa's mother, Esperanza Morris, filed an initial grievance with the school in October 2012. After she got no response, she drafted a second complaint with another parent whose daughter allegedly faced bullying.

The district responded in a letter dated Nov. 27, 2013, saying it interviewed 26 witnesses and determined the allegations couldn't be proven.

It also noted that since May 2013, "a number of resolutions were discussed and additional services were offered to Ms. Morris and her daughter by school staff, including counseling services."

But Morris and her daughter still are seeking relief. The school's treatment of her daughter has been so bad, Morris said, that this month she decided to put Marissa in an independent study program for the remainder of the school year.

Students have pulled desks out from underneath Marissa and locked her out of classrooms, Morris said. "They've made no effort whatsoever to fix the problem."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6412, hfurfaro@fresnobee.com or @hannahfurfaro on Twitter.

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