Twelve-year-old Sean Taul of Glendale said he learned an important lesson last week that has nothing to do with reading, writing or arithmetic. The seventh-grader took the Glendale Unified School District to Small Claims Court over the theft of his bicycle from a locked rack at Toll Junior High School. He won $234.25 for the bike plus $22 in court fees.
The lesson was that "the courts are there to help you when you need it," said Sean, who wants to be a lawyer and said he assiduously watches People's Court and other judicial shows.
His was the 11th bike stolen from Toll during the 1986-87 school year, Glendale officials said.
But unlike the 10 other bike owners, Sean did not just chalk it up to bad luck and forget about it. He had worked a paper route for six months to buy his Mongoose FS 1--a lean, fluorescent-green machine. He rode it to school every day and locked it to the bike rack in an enclosed school compound. It was barely 3 months old when thieves took it last September.
"I felt really sad," Sean said. "I'm kind of into bikes."
Enter Sean's mom, Regina Taul.
"I said, Seanny, you take it to court," Taul recalled. "And he said, 'Aw, Mom, I'm only a kid.' "
But Regina Taul was not to be deterred.
"Sean, you count," Taul told her son.
With his parents' encouragement, Sean wrote a letter and filed a claim with the school's insurance company. At the crux of the case was Sean's claim that a Toll administrator told him the bicycle would be safe at the school's locked bicycle compound. Glendale school officials denied that the administrator made such a statement.
However, Toll takes every precaution it can to secure the area, said Steve Carey, director of business services for the Glendale School District. The bike compound is surrounded by a locked, six-foot wire fence. Teachers and campus security officers patrol the area before and after classes.
"There was no negligence," Carey said.
Precautions notwithstanding, two bicycle thieves hopped the fence one day last fall, snipped Sean's lock with bolt cutters and hoisted his bike over the fence. They were spotted by a school staffer but fled before she could summon help, Carey said.
"It really wasn't anyone's fault," he added.
But Small Claims Court Judge Walter Luostari ruled differently last Thursday. He found the school district was negligent in not providing a secure enough area for students to leave bikes and awarded Sean $256.25.
School district officials must decide by May 6 whether to appeal.
The problem with not appealing is that "we're telling every kid in town who ever lost anything that they can come here and collect it," Carey said. He added that the district considers the ruling a fluke. "It's not a precedent-setting case," Carey said.
As for Sean?
In court last Thursday, he suggested that school officials build a nine-foot fence around the bicycle compound to discourage would-be thieves. He's riding his skateboard to school or cadging rides from his mother. And he's waiting for his check to come in the mail so he can buy a Haro FX S--a high-tech bike of as yet undetermined color.
But first his parents are going to buy him two strong locks so he can secure both ends of the bike whenever he leaves it unattended.
"I don't know if I'm going to take it to school," he added somewhat sheepishly.