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Part One: Family of Moreno Valley teen killed by bullies waits for court date

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Part One: Family of Moreno Valley teen killed by bullies waits for court date

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Felipe Salcedo holds a framed picture of his late nephew, Diego Stolz, at his Moreno Valley home Wednesday, March 23, 2022. The
Felipe Salcedo holds a framed picture of his late nephew, Diego Stolz, at his Moreno Valley home Wednesday, March 23, 2022. The 13-year-old died after being assaulted by two students at Landmark Middle School in September 2019.
(Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)
The Press-Enterprise
Wednesday, March 23, 2022

The lawsuit brought by the family of a 13-year-old killed by bullies at his Moreno Valley middle school likely won’t get its day in court until 2023.

“Unfortunately, with COVID, the courts are so congested,” said Los Angeles attorney Dave Ring, who represents the family of the late Diego Stolz.

With things going slowly due to the pandemic, Ring doesn’t think there’s much chance of a court date being set until next year.

“It’s a torturous thing for me,” Diego’s aunt Juana Salcedo said, speaking through an interpreter.

She and her husband, Felipe, raised Diego and his brothers, and refer to him as their son.

“This causes me a lot of anxiety. I suffer from deep depression ever since Diego died.”

Juana Salcedo, aunt of Diego Stolz, who raised him since he was an infant, holds back tears as she looks at the mementos and photographs belonging to Diego at their Moreno Valley home Sept. 14, 2020. Diego Stolz, 13, died after being assaulted by two fellow students at Landmark Middle School in September 2019. (File photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

On Sept. 16, 2019, early in his eighth-grade year, Stolz was sucker-punched in an attack captured on video and shared on social media. His head hit a pillar and, after he fell to the ground, unconscious, his assailant and another boy continued punching him. Stolz never woke up and died days later in a hospital.

Stolz’s family filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the assailants’ families, the Moreno Valley Unified School District and officials at his school, Landmark Middle School.

“I keep saying ‘Why didn’t they do more? Why didn’t they do something?” Juana Salcedo said. “Why didn’t they pay attention to what I was telling them? Every time I would go over there, they would say ‘Oh, yes, oh, yes.’ I would come back home, kind of comforted because I believed that they were going to be doing something about it. But every day that went by, I was really disappointed because I kept seeing that they weren’t doing anything.”

According to the Salcedos, the fatal assault wasn’t the first time Diego had been in a fight with the two boys who ultimately killed him. Stolz’s family alleges the school failed to act after they told Landmark Assistant Principal Kamilah O’Connor days before the attack that the boys were bullying Stolz. O’Connor, the family said, promised to suspend the two boys. Instead, they were still in school the day of the attack.

“I believe if they had just listened to my words and listened to the things that I was telling them, the things that my son told me was happening, my son would be alive here today with us,” Juana Salcedo said.

O’Connor is a named defendant in the lawsuit. O’Connor and Principal Scott Walker were replaced a month and a half after the assault. O’Connor is now a middle school principal in Dixon, north of Sacramento. Walker still works for Moreno Valley Unified, thought the district would not disclose his current job assignment, citing privacy concerns. According to the Transparent California website, which uses California Public Records Act requests to assemble employment, salary and benefits information on public employees, in 2020, Walker was a coordinator for professional development — an in-house trainer. O’Connor and Walker did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday afternoon, March 22.

Since Stolz’s death, the district has changed its bullying reporting system to make administrators more accountable for following through. The district also changed its training for assistant principals, who handle student discipline.

The two boys who assaulted Stolz — who are not being identified because they are minors — spent 47 days in custody after his death. In November 2020, both “made admissions” — juvenile court terminology that is similar to pleading guilty — to involuntary manslaughter and assault with force likely to cause great bodily injury.

In March 2021, the boys were sentenced to probation for the fatal assault on Stolz. Riverside County Superior Court Judge Roger A. Luebs’ sentence included therapy for anger-management issues, impulsivity and a lack of empathy.

A year and a half later, the Salcedo’s front hall is still dominated by a shrine to Diego. It features photos of him in happier days, along with hand and footprints, candles, flowers and religious mementoes.

“That shrine is never going to leave there,” Juana Salcedo said.

She’s been in therapy since Diego’s death and said it’s helping.

“Before, I couldn’t even mention his name.”

Felipe Salcedo wants to see Moreno Valley Unified make meaningful changes in how it responds to bullying.

“A total change that they know what to do and how to do it, especially this school, that seems to have nothing in place — and they don’t care,” he said.

If that’s happening, the Salcedos and their attorneys don’t know, because the pandemic has slowed down the court system.

“They’re definitely taking the lawsuit very seriously,” Ring said. “It’s difficult to say if they’ve cleaned up their act, because we haven’t had the chance to explore that yet.”

Moreno Valley Unified has little to say, at the moment, about the lawsuit, with district spokesperson Anahi Velasco only writing that “we continue to work through the litigation process.”

Juana Salcedo is skeptical that real improvements have occurred.

“I have heard from parents that they still have bullying and (the district) still ignores them,” she said. “That makes me mad and I’m still frustrated.”

It’s critical that school districts do better, according to Felipe Salcedo.

“In a lot of schools, they ignore parents, they just kind of brush us off,” he said. “They have to bear in mind that our children have a lot to live for. Honestly, I am telling you that this situation is so difficult that I would not wish it on anyone.”

This story was part of a 2021 Data Fellowship with the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism.

[This article was originally published by The Press-Enterprise.]

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