Sawyer Rosenstein’s life changed on May 16, 2006, when he was a 12-year-old student at Eric Smith Middle School in Ramsey, N.J. That day, another student punched him in the abdomen, sending a blood clot to his spine, and eventually paralyzing him from the waist down a week later.
Rosenstein, who has been in a wheelchair for the past six years, is now a college student, and the case he and his family brought against the school district was settled this week for $4.2 million. The family’s attorney, Jeffrey Youngman, told ABC News that this case is unique; he doesn’t know of any other bullying case that has resulted in a larger settlement based on personal injury.
“This was a three-pronged case,” he told ABC News. “We had to show that his paralysis was a result of the punch. We also found that the school knew Sawyer had been regularly bullied, and didn’t do anything about it, and that the other student had showed violent propensities, and they didn’t do anything about that either.”
Rosenstein had sent emails to several school administrators in the months before the paralyzing punch telling them he was being bullied, at one point even saying he wanted to get it all “on record” in case anything happened to him in the future. He addressed emails to both the school guidance counselor and assistant principal, informing them of the bullying and asking for help.
Youngman found that there had been at least three separate reports, one involving police, of the other student violently bullying his classmates, but the school didn’t keep any paperwork documenting investigations or any documents showing disciplinary actions.
After the settlement was reached, the Ramsey Board of Education released a statement denying any wrongdoing, and saying that the district’s insurance carriers agreed to the settlement and will pay it out.
The family chose to make this case public, Youngman said, in order to help educate students and schools about what should be done about bullying. Rosenstein told The Associated Press he decided to talk publicly about the case to show victims can recover, and to show would-be bullies that violence can have consequences.
“It’s obviously a hot topic now,” Youngman said, “but ask the average 11-, 12-, 13-year-old what they should do if they are being bullied. Most of them won’t know. Sawyer did know, but got no response, so it’s also important to make sure teachers and school administrators know what they are supposed to do with bullies and the students who are being bullied.”
New Jersey enacted a tough new anti-bullying law last year, but Youngman says such laws are useless unless they are enforced and adequately funded.
A separate, confidential settlement was reached with the family of the student who punched Rosenstein.
Rosenstein decided to study communications at Syracuse University after attended last year’s final space shuttle launch as a credentialed media member.
“This is a case of triumph and moving on,” Youngman told ABC. “Bullying is a real problem, and hopefully this family’s courage can help show people what can happen, and how to stop it.”