RAMSEY, N.J. – A New Jersey school district has agreed to pay $4.2 million to settle a lawsuit by a middle school student who was paralyzed when a known bully punched him in the abdomen.
The settlement between the Ramsey school district and the family of Sawyer Rosenstein, who had complained to the district about being bullied, was worked out over the past two months but not made public until last week.
The family's lawsuit alleged school officials knew or should have known the boy's attacker had violent tendencies and failed to comply with a state anti-bullying law, said the Rosensteins' attorney, Jeffrey Youngman. The boy had punched another student in the face on a school bus a year earlier, but the school kept no record of it or other attacks and the attacker was not subjected to escalating discipline, the suit said.
Three months before being punched, Rosenstein, then 12, emailed school officials to report he was being bullied and to ask for help.
"I would like to let you know that the bullying has increased," he wrote to his guidance counselor at the Eric Smith Middle School. "I would like to figure out some coping mechanisms to deal with these situations, and I would just like to put this on file so if something happens again, we can show that there was past bullying situations."
Sawyer was punched in the abdomen at school on May 16, 2006, dropping him to his knees. When he came home that day he complained of pain in his back but otherwise felt fine, his father, Joel Rosenstein, told The Record of Woodland Park.
Two days later, the seventh-grader let out a scream in his bedroom.
"We picked him up and called an ambulance," the father told the newspaper. "He hasn't walked since."
The blow had caused a clot in a major artery that supplies blood to his spine, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down from what his attorney described as an "incredibly rare" injury.
The Ramsey Board of Education released a statement Wednesday denying any wrongdoing and saying that it was the district's insurance carriers that decided to enter into the settlement and will pay it out.
"The district's character education and harassment/intimidation/bullying initiatives and reporting practices are leading edge," the statement said. "All programs in this area far exceed all of the criteria established by the state of New Jersey."
Both Youngman and the board said the settlement did not include any admission of liability or fault on the part of the district.
Sawyer Rosenstein, now an 18-year-old freshman majoring in communication at Syracuse University, told The Associated Press that he decided to talk about the case to let others who are bullied know that they can recover and to let would-be bullies know that violence can have serious consequences.
"I think I became something greater than I ever could have become without it," he said.
After he was paralyzed, he gave up his fledgling acting career and started attending a camp where he learned about space. He later started a space-oriented podcast and attended last year's final space shuttle launch with a media credential, which inspired him to study communication.
Youngman told The Associated Press "there is never enough money in the world that could compensate someone who is paralyzed."
But Youngman said Rosenstein has refused to "make this a story of 'woe is me.'"
"It is a story of triumph and moving on," he said.
The Rosensteins also settled a claim against the boy who attacked their son. Youngman said the terms were confidential.
New Jersey enacted a tough new anti-bullying law in 2011. Youngman said such laws are effective only if they are enforced and adequately funded.