The family of a 13-year-old boy who was fatally injured during a confrontation with two classmates on a Moreno Valley middle school campus announced Tuesday they’re suing the Moreno Valley Unified School District for wrongful death and civil rights violations, alleging their pleas to address bullying of the teen were largely ignored.
“This family did all the right things. They went in and complained and did everything right. But the school failed them,” attorney David Ring told reporters during a news briefing at the Mission Inn Hotel & Spa in Riverside. “The administration could have prevented this from happening, and they blew it.”
Ring, who was retained by the legal guardians of the victim, Diego Stolz, filed a tort claim in Riverside County Superior Court, seeking damages and “equitable relief” — policy changes — from MVUSD.
The damage award being sought, which Ring acknowledged is an unsettled figure that will likely change, is $100 million.
According to the attorney, Diego was consistently bullied by two to four boys, starting while he was in seventh grade at Landmark Middle School. Ring could not provide a figure on the number of bullying incidents, but said the mistreatment began with verbal insults and the taking of the victim’s belongings.
When Diego entered eighth grade in August, 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, Juana Salcedo, filed “multiple complaints” at Landmark during the previous and current school years, but her concerns fell on deaf ears.
The harassment came to a head on Sept. 12, 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, Ring said.
“This teacher saw his emotional state and knew there was something wrong, but there was nothing done,” the attorney said, pointing specifically to alleged inaction by the campus’ vice principal, Kamilah O’Connor.
That afternoon, Diego told his aunt about the assault, and she asked her adult daughter, Jazmin Salcedo, to take the boy to school the next day and address the matter with administrators, according to Ring.
His court filing states 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.”
Diego was allowed to stay home that Friday, but when he returned to school after the weekend, nothing had changed, and the two assailants who had hounded him the prior week caught him in front of a building during lunch recess, according to Ring.
He referred to widely circulated mobile phone video footage that shows one boy standing in Diego’s face, while the victim stands limply, then backing up and punching him in the mouth. The second assailant then blindsides 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 the following week.
“He was a humble, lovable person,” Jazmin Salcedo told reporters, with seven relatives standing around her. “He was the most affectionate of all of us. This shouldn’t have happened to him — or anyone.”
According to Salcedo, Diego’s mother died when he was a year old, and his father died when he was 8, and he was raised by his aunt’s family.
The two boys allegedly involved in the assault are facing manslaughter charges in Riverside Juvenile Dependency Court. Neither defendant has been identified because they are underage. Both are being held in Riverside Juvenile Hall.
Attorney David Wohl, who is representing one of the boys, told reporters earlier this month that a culture pervades on the Landmark campus that has made fighting an accepted “part of life.”
“Most of the time, thankfully, no one dies,” Wohl said. “But the school lost control, and the school allowed this culture to fester. And one child is dead because of it.”
MVUSD recently announced sweeping changes intended to put a stop to bullying incidents, establishing an online complaint process for students and parents, a set of guidelines that identify prohibited behaviors and a phone number that students and parents may call anytime they want to flag acts of aggression, verbal or physical.
Ring dismissed the bullying program as reactionary and questioned its effectiveness.
“This is a systemic issue,” he said. “There are a lot of problems that have been documented in this school district. From the superintendent on down, change needs to take place.”