Lawsuit says Kansas archdiocese retaliated against mother who tried to stop bullying

By Judy L. Thomas
Kansas City Star
May 30, 2015

A spokeswoman for the defendants provided a response from archdiocesan superintendent of schools Kathy O’Hara, who said no one would be able to comment on the lawsuit because the archdiocese had not yet seen it.
Photo by Tammy Ljungblad

A Shawnee woman is suing the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, alleging that officials lodged a false child abuse complaint with the state against her after she raised concerns about her daughter being bullied at school.

Also named as defendants are Sacred Heart Catholic Church and its school principal.

The lawsuit, filed by Melissa Schroeder this month in Johnson County District Court, alleges that the bullying took place at the Shawnee school in 2014 and caused serious health issues for her 10-year-old daughter. After Schroeder tried to get the school to resolve the problem, the lawsuit says, officials retaliated by making a false report with the state child welfare agency, saying among other things that Schroeder had requested an exorcism for her daughter.

“What happened to her was appalling,” said Schroeder’s attorney, Sarah Brown. “This is about a mom trying to get the bullying to stop and then having the church retaliate against her.

“Catholic officials should praise — not persecute — brave parents who report hurtful actions against kids.”

A spokeswoman for the defendants provided a response from archdiocesan superintendent of schools Kathy O’Hara, who said no one would be able to comment on the lawsuit because the archdiocese had not yet seen it.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages on counts including defamation, invasion of privacy and malicious prosecution.

Knowingly making a false child abuse and neglect report is a Class B misdemeanor under Kansas law. Brown said the decision on whether to file charges was up to the Johnson County district attorney’s office.

“They did an investigation,” she said, “and decided not to prosecute.”

According to the lawsuit, Schroeder phoned her daughter’s teacher at Sacred Heart in early April 2014. She told the teacher about the bullying and said it was causing health issues for her daughter. The teacher told Schroeder she would “keep a close eye” on the situation and take care of it.

Schroeder emailed the teacher and the school principal, Maureen Engen, the last day of April, telling them her daughter’s health was deteriorating and asking that they protect the girl “from the continuous bullying,” the lawsuit says.

In early May, Schroeder again phoned the teacher about the ongoing bullying and was assured the problem was being handled, the lawsuit alleges. On May 9, Schroeder’s daughter was treated at Children’s Mercy South for her worsening health issues.

Schroeder’s daughter had reported the bullying to the school nurse no fewer than eight times from the end of April 2014 to May 13, 2014, the lawsuit alleges. It says Schroeder met with Engen on May 13 and showed her a letter from a doctor at Children’s Mercy. The letter said that the girl had severe migraines and that the doctor was concerned that the bullying was causing significant psychological distress.

Engen was frustrated when she read the doctor’s note, the lawsuit alleges, and said she had no knowledge of the bullying. The school had done nothing to address the problem, the lawsuit says.

Schroeder met with Engen again the next day and was told that “perhaps this school is not for you” and that her daughter didn’t need to finish the school year, the lawsuit alleges. Schroeder’s daughter suffered headaches and other health issues almost daily from April 24 until the last day of school, May 23.

Four days before school was out, the lawsuit says, Engen placed a hotline call to the Kansas Department for Children and Families, alleging that Schroeder was abusing and neglecting her daughter and implying that she falsified medical documents. Engen told the agency that she had called the girl’s allergist and was told the girl had not been seen in a year and a half, the lawsuit says.

But Schroeder had given Engen and the teacher a May 13, 2014, note from the allergy specialist that said the girl was being treated for severe migraines and didn’t need any added stress, the lawsuit says.

Engen also told the state child welfare agency that Schroeder had requested the anointing of the sick and an exorcism for her daughter, the lawsuit alleges — which it said was not true.

The hotline call, the lawsuit says, was malicious and made “with the intent of reporting groundless, false claims of abuse and neglect that could have resulted in plaintiff’s children being removed from their home” as well as losing her livelihood and ability to support her family.

Schroeder was informed on June 18, 2014, that the Department for Children and Families had officially closed the abuse and neglect case, the lawsuit says, and the claims were not substantiated.

Schroeder requested a meeting with a priest and superintendent O’Hara to tell them about the retaliation committed against her in the hopes that it would be resolved, the lawsuit alleges. The priest set up a meeting for July 9, but when Schroeder and her husband arrived, the lawsuit says, O’Hara refused to meet with them.

That same day, the priest confirmed that the hotline call to the state was made by Engen and that the decision to do it was made jointly by Engen, O’Hara and a nun, according to the lawsuit.

On July 15, Schroeder sent letters to Archbishop Joseph Naumann and to O’Hara asking them for a response. The lawsuit says both replied that “it would not be prudent to respond to their concerns until the legal investigation was over.”

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