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School bullies being sued
« on: February 17, 2006, 08:15:00 PM »
School bullies can land in court

Victims' families try suing parents
Tuesday, February 14, 2006
Chris Seper
Plain Dealer Reporter

School bullies who get a trip to the principal's office could also find themselves in front of a judge.

More parents whose children are beaten or bullied are suing their attackers' families or schools, according to court filings and experts on school violence. Some want money to pay for broken noses or more-severe injuries. Others hope a lawsuit provides a sense of justice they didn't get from criminal trials and school discipline.

Violence-prevention centers also are hearing from more parents about whether to take schools and bullies' families to court.

"A lot of parents who take steps to a civil case believe the criminal justice system didn't work," said William Lassiter, manager for North Carolina's Center for the Prevention of School Violence, one of the country's first school-safety agencies.

The center received one or two calls a week from concerned parents before the 1999 Columbine schools shootings. Now, it gets about a half-dozen daily. About a quarter of those callers eventually discuss a lawsuit because police and school officials didn't help them, Lassiter said.

"Somebody has got to get serious about this," said Mike Duitch, whose family lost a suit in 2001 against the Canton city schools. Duitch's son, Nathan, was badly beaten by a group of students during his freshman year, an incident that the Duitchs said was part of a school-sanctioned day of hazing.

No one - from the FBI to the U.S. Department of Education to anti-bullying advocates - tracks school violence lawsuits, but anecdotal evidence and interviews suggest civil courts are wading into these murky conflicts as the country focuses more on bullying.

Rachel Mertz tormented Emma Silverblatt during eighth grade at Mayfield High School, according to the Silverblatt family's lawsuit in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court. Emma, who is Jewish, said Rachel would threaten her and use anti-Semitic insults, the suit states.

But Rachel, who like Emma was 13 at the time, told police that Emma called her names and regularly slapped her when they rode the school bus. Neither girl told the school, and each denies picking on the other.

Rachel confronted Emma at Emma's second-floor locker one afternoon in March 2004, the suit said. Emma tried to move Rachel out of the way and Rachel grabbed Emma by the hair. Rachel told police that Emma started kicking her.

Then Rachel dragged Emma to the ground, punched her and banged her head against the school's tile floor several times, calling out insults as she hit her, according to a Mayfield police report and the lawsuit.

Mayfield High suspended Rachel for five days, and she left the school soon after. Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court also ordered her to mediation, a type of court counseling meant to work through youth problems.

The Silverblatts want $50,000 for their daughter's head and neck injuries, blurred vision and mental anguish, which required "extensive medical care," according to the suit, which is pending. However, Emma Silverblatt's main purpose in suing is that "the community have an opportunity to hear what happened," said her attorney, Robert F. DiCello.

The Mertzes' attorneys did not return phone calls seeking comment, nor did Denise Striker, Rachel Mertz's mother. The Silverblatt family declined to comment.

A settlement hearing is scheduled for March.

Child advocates don't think civil lawsuits would deter future fights or bullying.

There would be less litigation and a better long-term result if schools and juvenile systems created programs that gave attacked students a sense of justice, said Lassiter, of the Center for the Prevention of School Violence.

Lawyers often shun these cases because the small-money judgments aren't worth anyone's trouble. A Lakewood family paid $9,000 after their daughter broke the nose of another student in the late 1990s. Schools are largely insulated from lawsuits unless they had been told of a problem and did nothing, according to attorneys, security experts and recent court judgments.

Yet there may be more payouts than the lawsuits indicate, said Kenneth Trump, president of the National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland consulting firm. Trump gets an average of three calls a week from attorneys who either need an expert to testify in a school violence lawsuit or want him to review their cases.

"Take the case results and multiply them out your ears, because the majority of these things don't get to lawsuits," Trump said. "Schools settle these suits so they don't get to the media and the public eye."

Plain Dealer researcher Jo Ellen Corrigan contributed to this story.

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:

cseper@plaind.com, 216-999-4169


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