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Claim Filed Over Death of Boy in School Fight

Safety: Mother of the Palmdale 13-year-old says district negligence led to the Nov. 19 tragedy. She seeks $10 million. School officials decline to comment.

February 04, 2000|JEFFREY GETTLEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The mother of the boy who was killed in a fight at a Palmdale middle school filed a $10-million wrongful death claim against the Palmdale School District on Thursday.

Mary Corson is asserting that lax safety measures on school grounds led to the fatal fight at Juniper Intermediate School on Nov. 19, in which her 13-year-old son, Stephan, was punched in the face, hit his head on a sidewalk and died soon afterward.

"We're not a legal family, we're not a vengeful family," said Corson, a single mother who moved to Palmdale three months ago in the hope of buying a home. "We're just an average, loving, caring family that believes in right and wrong."

Palmdale School District Supt. Nancy Smith said she had not seen the claim as of Thursday afternoon and declined to comment. The district's lawyer, Martin Carpenter of Carpenter & Rothans in West Los Angeles, did not return phone calls Thursday.

The eight-page claim asserts that the staff and teachers at Juniper Intermediate permitted "a dangerous, violent and chaotic atmosphere to exist . . . and did not maintain proper classroom control which resulted in a free-for-all."

Melanie E. Lomax, the Corsons' lawyer and a former president of the Los Angeles Police Commission, said the school district "may argue that two kids fighting is not their fault but that's been shown to be legally indefensible.

"The school cannot create a chaotic, violent environment and then say anything that happens to the students is the students' fault," Lomax said.

Under state law, such claims first must be filed against a government entity before a suit can be pursued.

The fight began as an argument in class over a spitball incident and escalated into a slugging match after class let out, according to Los Angeles County sheriff's detectives. Some students who saw the fight said Stephan threw the first punch. The other boy, a 14-year-old, fought back, slugging Stephan in the face and knocking him to the ground, witnesses told investigators.

The 14-year-old was suspended after the incident.

A high-ranking district official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Times on Wednesday that the district decided last month not to expel the boy. However, that same district official, who had direct knowledge of the proceedings, clarified the district's action Thursday--saying the boy had in fact been expelled but that the expulsion had been suspended.

That means the boy is now allowed to return to school, though he will not return to Juniper Intermediate but rather to an alternative school in the district, the school official said.

Because of confidentiality rules, school officials have refused to comment on any disciplinary action.

The 14-year-old left the Palmdale area shortly after the fight and was living recently with relatives in another part of the state, Smith has said. The boy's father is a teacher in the district and has been unable to be reached for comment.

According to the preliminary investigation by the Sheriff's Department, the 14-year-old may have been acting in self-defense.

It's unclear exactly how Stephan died; the county coroner's office is awaiting final lab results. Initial reports implied that Stephan died as a result of a head injury.

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