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Thursday, Jun 11 2009 05:42 PM

Californian exclusive: Bullying case costs families thousands

By JEFF NACHTIGAL and GRETCHEN WENNER, Californian staff writers jnachtigal@bakersfield.com gwenner@bakersfield.com

The Stockdale High ninth-grader thought he was going to a poker game.

Instead, five upperclassmen from his debate team pinned him down, encased him ankles-to-shoulders in plastic wrap and bound him tightly with duct tape, including thick layers over his mouth.

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SETTLEMENT TERMS

Proceeds of settlement: $260,000

Plaintiff award: $131,876.14 (less legal expenses of $52,294.66; attorney fees of $70,435.23; and medical expenses of $3,393.97).

Kern High School District/Richard Bookout, $42,500

John Vivian, $45,000

Brian Wright, $45,000

Michael Shuler, $20,000

Henry Lydecker, $17,500

Gatz Nieblas, $17,500

Conor O'Sullivan, $12,500

Tim and Miriam Vivian, $10,000

Douglas and Joan Wright, $10,000

James and Catherine Shuler, $10,000

William and Greta Lydecker, $10,000

Craig and Diane Nieblas, $10,000

Terry and Elizabeth O'Sullivan, $10,000

The family of Yash Patel filed a counterclaim and settled separately. The Denaris paid the Patels $4,500; the Patels paid the Denaris' son $5,000.

TIMELINE OF EVENTS

Oct. 26, 2006: Fifteen Stockdale High students, their debate teacher and a parent chaperone leave at 4:30 p.m. in two vans for a speech tournament in Stockton. The three-day competition starts the following day, a Friday.

Oct. 27, 2006: After dinner, a 14-year-old Stockdale freshman is pinned down and tightly duct-taped by five upperclassmen teammates. He is kept that way and mocked for 30-45 minutes

Feb. 22, 2007: The freshman is suspended for three days after school officials determine he harassed two students with racial and religiously derogatory slurs.

Feb. 25, 2007: The freshman's parents e-mail school officials about the Stockton incident and other instances of bullying against their son. They ask the school to investigate and say if the truth does not come out they will file criminal charges and a civil suit.

March 16, 2007: Stockdale High finishes its administrative investigation of the Stockton incident.

Five upperclassmen are expelled.

Oct. 16, 2007: The freshman's father files a civil lawsuit against seven students, their parents, the school district and the debate teacher.

Jan. 30, 2008: A cross-complaint is filed against the freshman by one of the defendants. The freshman's family pays $4,500 to settle the cross-complaint.

June 8, 2009: After more than 18 months, all parties have agreed to settlements. The case is deemed dismissed with prejudice by the judge.

A full half-hour of mockery and threats followed before a trickle of blood from the boy's mouth frightened some of the older students who freed their captive.

Two-and-a-half years later, fallout from the incident in a Stockton hotel room continues.

Five upperclassmen were expelled. They and two other students, their parents and the Kern High School District paid $260,000 to settle a civil lawsuit filed by the boy's father.

The case illustrates the degree to which students, including minors, and their parents can be held financially accountable for bullying allegations.

It also shows that students can be held financially responsible even if they are witnesses or simply know about such incidents, but don't tell authorities.

Two upperclassmen paid the highest settlements: $45,000 apiece. Each student's parents paid an additional $10,000.

Four other students paid $12,500 to $20,000, with parents again ponying up $10,000. The school district paid $42,500.

The case stemmed from an October 2006 incident in which Stockdale's forensics debate team -- many of them honors students -- traveled to Stockton to compete in a three-day tournament at University of the Pacific.

The suit was filed in Kern County Superior Court in October 2007 by Tim Denari, the boy's father. Denari's son is referred to in most filings as John Doe.

The final settlement concluded Monday.

Several parents of accused students said the allegations were overblown and the incident was more a prank than bullying. Insurance companies, in at least four cases, paid the settlement monies.

One set of parents were upset their son, who was not involved in restraining the boy, was punished by the school and dragged into the legal case.

WHAT HAPPENED

The night of Oct. 27, 2006, John Doe and a sophomore -- later to become a defendant -- were lured by the promise of a poker game to the upperclassmen's room at the Courtyard by Marriott Stockton.

When Doe and the sophomore walked in, "five other students took physical hold of (Doe) and began to wrap him up in plastic wrap and duct tape," a Stockdale High investigation determined.

The sophomore and a ninth-grader already in the room -- who also became a defendant -- ran out when they saw what was happening to the boy. Neither told adults what they'd seen.

The five older students held Doe's hands, feet, stomach and head as they bound him in Saran wrap and tape. One student held his jaws shut to seal his mouth, up to the nostrils, with duct tape.

Then they "made a mockery of Doe, taking pictures of him, all the while laughing, as he lay there mummified and gasping for air," the original complaint said.

They told the boy they were going to tape him to the wall and leave him alone in the room for a few hours. The upperclassmen made several attempts to attach him to the wall.

The boy struggled and fell to the floor each time.

His hands, balled against his belly under the wrappings, "plunged into his stomach, knocking the wind out of him" every time he fell, the complaint said.

The students then flipped him on his back. Brian Wright, who later settled for $45,000, repeatedly dropped a roll of duct tape onto the boy's chest from shoulder height.

The boy panicked and started to cry.

At one point, when the supervising teacher called the room to check on students, Wright held the boy's mouth shut to silence him.

When the boy managed to open a small breathing hole for his mouth, Wright slammed his mouth shut, causing him to bite his tongue.

"Blood then began trickling out of the side of his mouth," according to the complaint, at which point several students worried something was wrong and let him go.

The incident lasted about 30 to 45 minutes.

The next day, two upperclassmen showed off their cell-phone pictures of the taped-up ninth-grader to other students at the tournament.

One of them, Conor O'Sullivan, who settled for $12,500, urinated on Doe's shirt.

The complaint says the high school district was liable because the trip was a school-sponsored event that counted for class credit and the teacher in charge didn't properly monitor and control students.

The district settled months before parents and students reached an agreement with The boy's father. Attempts to reach Richard Bookout, the teacher in charge, on Thursday were unsuccessful.

The district's defense attorney, Anthony DeMaria, termed the settlement as "reasonable" but wouldn't comment further.

DeMaria estimated he has handled six or seven bullying cases in California in the past decade and said it's rare for this kind of case to go to trial.

He also said choosing to sue the parents as well as the students was "unique" and a "strategic decision."

LONG TIME

The boy didn't tell his parents or school officials about the wrapping incident until four months later -- after he received a three-day suspension for bullying fellow ninth-grader Yash Patel.

That incident, in February 2007, shows how bullying allegations often are far from clear-cut.

Doe called Patel a "terrorist" and other derogatory terms and touched his face with a fly swatter, a countersuit filed by Patel's family showed.

Denari and his son paid $4,500 to settle the Patels' countersuit.

The Patels paid $5,000. Yash Patel, also a ninth-grader at the time of the Stockton incident, had run out of the room after the upperclassmen began restraining Doe.

Doe told his parents and school police he held the secret because he worried about being an outcast on the forensics team and feared retribution.

While suspended, he told his mother and father about the Stockton trip and other bullying incidents at school.

The Denaris e-mailed a letter to school officials detailing the allegations and demanding a school investigation, saying they would file a criminal complaint and a civil suit "if the truth does not come out."

Less than three weeks later, the school reported the five upperclassmen had admitted to their actions in Stockton and been expelled.

PARENTS UNHAPPY

One set of parents involved in the case spoke to The Californian on the record.

William and Greta Lydecker maintain their son Henry, a sophomore at the time, didn't know about the plan and left the hotel room as soon as he saw what was happening.

Lydecker "was not involved with the restraining or wrapping," a school police report concluded.

In the days after the incident, Henry and John Doe were debate partners and won medals, Greta Lydecker said.

Yet the Lydeckers' insurance company paid $27,500 to settle out.

"We feel wrongfully accused," said William Lydecker. "We didn't like the notion of settling. We would rather have had our son cleared of this, but from a financial perspective, here's where we are."

They were disturbed by Stockdale's rush to judgment that "summarily" lumped Henry in with the other students, he said.

Greta Lydecker said Henry was suspended for five days after being "interrogated" by district police and told to write and sign a statement, which would later become evidence in the case.

The school needs to provide an environment where verbal bullying is not allowed, said Greta Lydecker.

"And I think parents need to step up and know that verbal bigotry is every bit as harmful as physical bullying," she said.

POWAY BULLYING CASE

The Kern High district and families could very well have been on the hook for more damages if the case had gone to a jury trial.

Last October, the California Court of Appeal (Fourth District) upheld a jury's finding that the Poway Unified School District in San Diego County took little to no action when two high school students were harassed relentlessly because they are gay, according to Lambda Legal, which represented the plaintiffs.

The students were awarded $300,000.

The Poway and Kern incidents should be a wake-up call for school districts, said Lambda attorney Tara L. Borelli.

"These cases should send a strong signal to educators that they have an important obligation to make sure students are safeguarded on campus and at school events," she said.

ARE YOU COVERED?

At least four defendants' settlement payments in the Stockton incident were made by their homeowners insurance policies -- even though the bullying took place in a hotel room 230 miles from Bakersfield.

How can you tell if you'd be covered in a similar situation?

Tully Lehman, spokesman for the Insurance Information Network of California, an industry group, said "it really does behoove parents" to understand the liability portion of their homeowners or renters policies.

Typically, a homeowners policy provides $150,000 to $300,000 in liability coverage. Renters often opt for less.

As to whether you'd be covered if your kid bullied or witnessed the bullying of another student, that's trickier. Lehman recommended calling your carrier and asking if you'd be covered.

Even that's not a guarantee. There may be exclusions for willful intent, for example.

Or, he said, something that sounds similar at first might not play out the same way.

SPEAKING OUT

Obviously, at a minimum, these kids used poor judgment, said Rick Phillips, director of Community Matters, which developed the Safe School Ambassadors anti-bullying program taught in four district high schools (but not Stockdale).

"It doesn't look like a prank to roll someone up in duct tape in today's world," said Phillips.

But it's the bystanders that are of greater concern for Phillips.

"Where are the kids who knew and didn't do anything? That's my bigger concern than about the guys who made the poor judgment and are paying the penalty now," he said.

With most data showing an increase in bullying, Phillips said, the greater degree of meanness displayed by students, and the lessening of holding peers accountable, is the larger question to which adults should pay attention.

Especially now, he said, because cell phones and social networks allow bullying evidence -- like the pictures of the mummified John Doe -- to spread rapidly, and may even motivate some kids to bully for the thrill of spreading it around to a large audience.

"Kids are confused between fun and reality," Phillips said.

"Is there an opportunity for adults to learn some lessons and realize there is an ethical dilemma here for students about being responsible to speak up when they know there's something unjust going on?" Philips asked.

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