Nicholas Ortiz, a 14-year-old freshman, brought his Bible to Mater Academy Bay High School to read during free time. Beginning in 2018, he was repeatedly bullied – by students and a teacher – and threatened with violence.
Both Ortiz and his parents complained to the school – over a four-year period – but the school repeatedly failed to document and investigate their complaints. And Nicholas was the one who was suspended, twice, not the bullies.
Now, the Dhillon Law Group has filed a lawsuit against Mater Academy on behalf of Nicholas and his parents. For bringing his Bible to school and reading it, “the complaint alleges that Ortiz has regularly been ostracized and targeted for his beliefs by fellow students, staff, and school administrators,” said the law firm.
Mater Academy is a charter management company based in Miami. The organization runs 34 charter schools and 1 private school on 26 campuses, with 97% minority students. Most of the schools are in South Florida, but the organization also runs a charter school in Las Vegas.
The suit contends that the school did not report or investigate repeated reports of Ortiz being bullied, despite the fact that this is required by Florida law and district policies.
The lawsuit explains what happened to the teenager. Here’s the sequence of events:
- Nicholas’ science teacher “singled out Nicholas in front of his peers and questioned him for believing in God,” insinuating he was “ignorant for believing the Bible.” The complaint alleges that the teacher “incited other students to bully and pick on Nicholas for reading the Bible.”
- His mother, Lourdes Ortiz, sent an email to the school, stating “that other children had told Nicholas they were going to sacrifice him, were taunting him, and that they falsely accused Nicholas of having a knife in his bag.” The suit notes, “Ortiz’s student file includes no record of this December 2018 bullying complaint,” and the school did not investigate the incident.
- The school also did not keep a record of or look into a January 2019 email from Mrs. Ortiz. She told administrators that a student stood up in the cafeteria and yelled “that Nicholas was a murderer and again yelled in the cafeteria her false accusation that Nicholas brought a knife to school.”
- “In September 2021, a group of students grabbed Nicholas’ Bible from him while he was reading it during his free time at school. These students started throwing the Bible back and forth, and then ripped pages off the book, sneering and ridiculing Nicholas for his faith.”
- Ortiz reported the incident, but, once again, his file shows no record of his complaint. Instead, the Vice Principal “ordered Nicholas to stop bringing his Bible to school,” which would “deprive Nicholas of his constitutional right to read his Bible.”
- A student kicked Nicholas’ iPad out of his hands during class in October 2021. The same student “repeatedly pushed and threatened Nicholas over the course of multiple days” and “stated his intent to attack Nicholas.”
- Nicholas threw a backpack at and slapped in the ear the student who threatened him and kicked his iPad. When Ortiz reported the entire incident, he was suspended for 10 days – without the school investigating or appropriately reporting the incident.
- In early December 2021, the lawsuit says, “Two students initiated a text chat wherein they made false and defamatory statements that Nicholas had made school shooting threats in the past, had threatened to shoot a fellow student that day, and that they should tell parents about the threat.” Nicholas had never made such threats.
- “The U.S. Department of Homeland Security visited the Ortiz home, investigated, and determined the accusations were without foundation.” Nicholas’ father, Rafael Ortiz emailed the school about the false allegations. The school suspended Nicholas again for 10 days, “due to the disruption of the learning environment.”
In the words of the lawsuit against Mater Academy, “Nicholas was bullied, physically assaulted, and threatened by students, and then abandoned and suffered retaliation at the hands of the very adults who were supposed to protect him.”
His parents removed him from the school for his own safety. But the lawsuit alleges that he and his family “suffered severe emotional, reputational, and economic damages” and “destroyed Nicholas’s reputation within his community.”
The suit says the school failed to follow its own and state-mandated procedures in allowing Nicholas to be bullied, violated his First Amendment rights to exercise his faith and to freely expression his beliefs.
The case is Ortiz v. Mater Academy Inc.
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