Nearly four years after 13-year-old Diego Stolz was bullied, beaten and fatally injured in an attack by two classmates, his family reached a $27-million settlement with the Moreno Valley Unified School District.
Attorneys for Diego's aunt and uncle, Juana and Felipe Salcedo, said Wednesday that the settlement of the wrongful death lawsuit filed in October 2019 against the school district was a "very bittersweet" victory. The Salcedos — who raised Diego as his legal guardians — say they had complained about bullying to school officials for at least a year before he was killed, and had received anti-bullying literature from district officials.
“This is the largest [bullying] settlement in the United States,” Dave Ring, an attorney for Los Angeles-based Taylor & Ring trial law firm, said Wednesday morning. “Yet, the family would give all the money back to have their baby, the youngest kid back.”
A district spokesperson directed all questions to the school district's lawyer, Michael Marlatt, who said the "tragic facts and circumstances surrounding [Diego] Stolz's death" led the district to settle, noting that mounting a defense "would be challenging."
Diego was attacked by two 13-year-old Landmark Middle School classmates on Sept. 16, 2019, while standing outside a classroom during a lunch break, as is seen in a Facebook video post.
In the video, an assailant gets into Diego’s face as the eighth-grader keeps his hands to his sides. His attacker momentarily retreats only to return and punch Diego in the face.
Diego is then sucker punched in the back of the neck as he reels from the first blow, the video shows. The second hit sends him face first into a nearby concrete pillar. The first bully then takes one more shot at Diego, who is on the ground, before both assailants run away.
Diego was rushed to a nearby hospital where he remained in critical condition for over a week. He was eventually pulled off life support and died on Sept. 24, 2019.
Charges of voluntary manslaughter and assault by means of force likely to produce great bodily injury were filed against the two teens who attacked Diego.
Ring said he did not know the fate of the two attackers. A spokesperson for the Riverside County district attorney's office said she could offer no information on the assailants.
“Juvenile court proceedings are completely and totally confidential,” he said. “We don't know what punishment they received in the juvenile court. All we know is that they did receive some form of punishment.”
Ring and fellow attorney Neil Gehlawat said they hoped the settlement would force changes in anti-bullying policy from the Moreno Valley School District and others.
“This lawsuit has put schools on notice to find ways to effectively deal with bullying and to enact real anti-bullying policies,” Gehlawat said in a statement. “Although his family’s grief can never be taken away, we believe real change will come, and there will be a renewed focus on anti-bullying programs across the nation.”
Diego and family members had complained about bullying for at least a year, including when Diego's shoes were stolen when he was in seventh grade. According to the lawsuit, his aunt was provided with an anti-bullying pamphlet by school officials.
He had been punched in the chest and threatened with more violence the week before his death even though he met with middle school vice principal Kamilah O’Connor on Sept. 13, 2019, according to the lawsuit.
O’Connor reassured the boy and promised to suspend the students for three days starting on Monday, and told him to take off the rest of the day.
Diego returned to campus that Monday and found his tormentors waiting for him.
They confronted him at lunchtime on what would be his final moments of consciousness.
Marlatt, who was representing the school district, acknowledged that one of the boys who was "involved in the fatal altercation" with Diego had struck the boy a week earlier.
"No steps were taken by the district to address that assault, which allowed the fatal assault to occur," Marlatt said.
The death was not the first incident of bullying and violence at Landmark.
An L.A. Times investigation revealed that at least 38 calls relating to violent or criminal allegations were made to the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department for service at Landmark Middle School in the 13 months leading up to Diego’s death. Those calls included cases of assault, battery, threats, disturbances and violations of the state Welfare and Institutions Code.
Eventually, 14 police reports were filed.
Landmark suffered another on-campus fatality more than 20 years earlier.
A 14-year-old student punched 12-year-old Jerod Schroeder in the head during a dispute over a basketball court. Jerod later succumbed to his injuries.
“The school district has promised to make changes and I take them at their word and I really hope that they do,” Ring said. “Let's see what the future holds but I think this settlement like this forces them to make changes.”
Ring noted that an early hurdle regarding the lawsuit was whether Diego's guardians were eligible to file a California wrongful death lawsuit.
Juana Salcedo and Felipe Salcedo had raised Diego for most of his life after the death of both his parents. They has also raised Diego's two brothers and their two biological children. But the law at the time did not allow wrongful death lawsuits to be filed by legal guardians.
“When we filed the lawsuit in 2019, the first in line would be the parents and then siblings, which he had two older brothers at the time,” Ring said. “We thought it was unfair that the people who raised him and acted like his parents weren’t in consideration.”
A year later, Assemblymember Eloise Gómez Reyes (D-Colton) authored Assembly Bill 2445, which removed the requirement that “only biological or adoptive parents” could bring a lawsuit on behalf of a minor who died due to wrongful conduct, according to Reyes.
She said in 2020 that the legislation was necessary to provide “a pathway to justice for Diego’s family.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.