The guardians of a 13-year-old boy who suffered at the hands of bullies, culminating in a fatal attack that was videotaped on his middle school campus, reached a $27 million settlement with the Moreno Valley Unified School District stemming from a lawsuit filed over the youth's death, it was announced today.
"The family will forever be heartbroken by the death of Diego, but they hope this case brings about change in school districts across the country,'' plaintiffs' attorney Dave Ring said. "Schools need to realize that bullying can never be tolerated and that any complaints of bullying and assault must be taken seriously. Diego's death was preventable if this school had simply prioritized an anti-bullying policy."
MVUSD officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment but said that the district intended to release a statement sometime Wednesday afternoon.
Ring and his co-counsel, Neil Gehlawat, said that the $27 million due the plaintiffs represents the "largest bullying settlement in the United States."
"This lawsuit has put schools on notice to find ways to effectively deal with bullying and to enact real anti-bullying policies,'' Gehlawat said. "We believe real change will come, and there will be a renewed focus on anti-bullying programs across the nation."
The civil action was filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court in September 2020.
Diego Stolz was a student at Landmark Middle School, and was consistently bullied by two to four boys starting when he was in seventh grade. Ring could not cite the number of bullying incidents but said the mistreatment began with verbal insults and stealing Diego's belongings.
When the boy entered eighth grade in August 2019, the abuse escalated, Ring said. He had no explanation for the victimization, observing that at one point, the boys were on good terms with Diego.
He said Diego's aunt filed "multiple complaints" at Landmark in the 2018-19 academic year, as well as the first month of the 2019-20 school year, but her concerns fell on deaf ears.
The harassment came to a head on Sept. 12, 2019, when one of the boys cornered and punched Diego in the chest, threatening to inflict further physical harm, at which point the youth went to a science teacher and revealed what he had endured.
"This teacher saw his emotional state and knew there was something wrong, but there was nothing done,'' Ring said, pointing specifically to alleged inaction by the campus' then-vice principal, Kamilah O'Connor.
That afternoon, Diego told his aunt, Juana Salcedo, about the assault, and she asked her adult daughter, Jazmin Salcedo, to address the matter with administrators, according to Ring.
His court filing said that Salcedo, Diego and O'Connor met for 20 minutes, and "after the meeting, O'Connor told Jazmin that she had learned the names of the bullies involved and she would suspend them for three days, starting Monday, Sept. 16. She also said their class schedules would be changed so that they would not be in Diego's class anymore."
When the victim returned to school the following week, the two assailants who had hounded him the prior week caught him in front of a building during lunch recess.
Ring referred to widely circulated mobile phone video footage that showed one boy in Diego's face, while the victim stands limply, then backing up and punching him in the mouth. The second assailant then blindsided Diego with another punch, causing him to fall and strike his head on a concrete pillar.
He suffered major trauma and was pronounced brain dead and taken off life support nine days later.
In November 2020, the two assailants, whose identities were not disclosed, both admitted an involuntary manslaughter charge, and five months later, Riverside County Superior Court Judge Roger Luebs sentenced the teenagers to unspecified terms of probation.
Luebs further directed that each offender enroll in character development and anger management classes, as well as perform 150 hours community service, not play violent video games, avoid social media and write letters of apology to the Stolz family.
Within a year of Diego's death, the MVUSD revamped its policies regarding student complaints, implementing a program with a series of procedures for deterring all forms of bullying.
Felipe and Juana Salcedo, who raised Diego from when he was a toddler after both of his parents died, were initially denied legal standing to file suit against the school district because they were not the boy's natural parents, and there was no clear provision in state law for legal guardians to bring civil action under such circumstances.
Due to lobbying on the part of attorneys, the state Legislature in September 2020 enacted Assembly Bill 2445, enabling guardians to file a wrongful death suit when a minor is involved.
O'Connor, another assistant principal and the principal of Landmark all lost their positions in the wake of the lawsuit, according to the plaintiffs' attorneys.