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4 families settle with school district in abuse case

APPLETON, Wis. (AP) — Four of six families who sued the Appleton Area School District over the alleged abuse of their children by a special education teacher have agreed to a settlement.

Superintendent Lee Allinger declined to say Friday how much money each of the families would receive under the settlement.

“They were monetary settlements, and they were covered by our insurer,” Allinger told The Post-Crescent. He didn’t know if the settlements would affect district premiums.

The case involves Mary Berglund, who formerly taught at Janet Berry Elementary School. The investigation began in January 2011 after an educational assistant in Berglund’s classroom reported the teacher’s “rough treatment” of students. The educational assistant cited a number of instances in 2009 and in January 2011 in which Berglund became physically abusive with disabled students.

She was placed on probation for three years in late 2011 after pleading no contest to five misdemeanor battery charges. A Calumet County judge withheld judgment on a felony count of child abuse.

A no contest plea is not an admission of guilt, but is treated as such for sentencing purposes.

David Rohrer, an attorney for the district, said the district is responsible for its policies and customs, but can’t be held liable for the conduct of others.

“There is no evidence that the district was deliberately indifferent to the rights of disabled students,” he wrote in a brief supporting the motion.

The two families who were not parties to the settlement are pursuing their claims against the district, Berglund, Allinger and Janet Berry Principal Richard Waters. The case is set for trial Sept. 16 in Green Bay.

The district and Berglund each filed motions Wednesday in U.S. District Court asking a federal judge to find in their favor. The settlements with the four families were noted in the motions. No timetable has been set for a ruling on the motions.

Attorneys say Berglund’s conduct with the children of the two remaining families wasn’t egregious enough to support their claims against the district. Berglund is accused of slapping one of the children’s hands, but the slap didn’t leave a mark.

“While not the most appropriate way to correct [the child’s] behavior, one can hardly say that it rises to the level of a constitutional violation,” Rohrer wrote in the motion.

Berglund’s attorney, Martin De Vries, argued in his motion that courts have consistently ruled that similar and even worse conduct isn’t sufficient for a finding that constitutional rights were violated.

Disability Rights Wisconsin represents both families still involved in the lawsuit.

The group’s attorney, Mitchell Hagopian, couldn’t be reached for comment Friday. A message left at the organization by The Associated Press wasn’t immediately returned Saturday.

Information from: The Post-Crescent, http://www.postcrescent.com

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