The death of a 13-year-old Moreno Valley boy who was assaulted at school has exposed deep wounds in the Inland Empire community, where parents say school officials have not addressed long-simmering issues of campus bullying.
Two 13-year-old boys from Landmark Middle School, about 60 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, have been arrested, their identities not released because of their age. Authorities are investigating whether Diego had been the target of bullying before he was attacked.
In the aftermath of his death, multiple members of the school community have come forward to share their own experiences involving campus bullying and to criticize the school’s handling of the attack on Diego.
“For the most part, I feel like the school should definitely do something, whether it’s changing the administration, hiring more security guards or being more on top of situations,” said Kimberlina Rodriguez, whose daughter attends Landmark and witnessed the attack.
Rodriguez organized a vigil at Landmark on Wednesday night, in part to help her daughter and her classmates heal. The gathering erupted into heated expressions of raw emotions, as parents demanded that Moreno Valley Unified School District Supt. Martinrex Kedziora explain what the school was doing to combat bullying.
“We were asking, ‘When is it going to stop?’” said Alexis Garcia, who has two children in Moreno Valley district schools. “‘How long do we have to wait? Do we have to wait for another tragedy to happen for you guys to listen to us?’ It was an angry mob because we were all mad as a community about what happened.”
Kedziora was surrounded by sheriff’s deputies during the confrontation and was escorted into the school building without addressing parents.
Landmark has assigned counselors, therapists and behavioral specialists on site to speak with students, staff and parents, Anahi Velasco, a spokeswoman for the Moreno Valley Unified School District, said Thursday in an email.
The video of the attack shows a boy sucker punching another boy, who is then struck by a third person standing out of frame. The child appears to hit his head on a concrete pillar as he falls to the ground. The assailant who threw the first punch strikes the boy again and then runs away.
Ortencia Vasquez, a mother and former school district employee, is planning to pull her son from Landmark, where he is in the seventh grade.
“He doesn’t want to go to school,” she said. “As a parent, I don’t want him to go either. I’m scared thinking something will happen to him.”
Vasquez said she is a former noon duty aide for the district and spent too much of her time breaking up fights, especially at Landmark, where she estimates she saw an average of three fights a week.
In addition, she said, last year, her son was bullied by a classmate who repeatedly poked him, jabbed him with pens and pulled his hair.
“My son told the teacher and they didn’t do anything,” she said. “They did not care.”
Eventually, she said, her son snapped and hit the bully. He received a one-day suspension.
“My son wouldn’t have ever touched that little boy if that teacher would have done something,” she said.
School district officials did not respond to requests about the parent complaints, their reports of endemic bullying or penalties for students who are involved in violence.
“As emotions run high in these sad and difficult times, our desire is that we work together to find the things that unite us instead of divide us,” the district said in a statement. Also, officials are “working diligently” to review and update its safety and security protocol, as well as district-wide bullying and harassment policies.
Leah Baker attended eighth grade at Landmark in 2013 and estimates that she saw one to two fights each week during her year as a student there.
Baker said that she transferred to Landmark with several other students, who were targeted by bullies because they were new. She said school officials did little to help. Instead she and her friends were instructed to spend their lunch periods in the library.
News of Diego’s death did not come as a shock, she said. “It’s sad, but thinking about how the school was, I wasn’t too surprised.”
For some longtime residents, the latest tragedy brings back particularly ugly memories.
In October 1998, Julie Galloway said she received a call to pick up her son from Landmark, where he attended the eighth grade. The school had been placed on lockdown after a 14-year-old student punched a 12-year-old student in the head during a dispute over the use of a basketball court on campus, according to a report by the National School Safety Center. The 12-year-old, Jerod Schroeder, later died of his injuries.
“This has been ongoing, and specifically that school seems to really stand out,” Galloway said Thursday.
About two years later, Galloway’s daughter attended Landmark and was targeted by bullies, she said. One day, a group of girls cornered her in a hallway and assaulted her, leaving her with a concussion, Galloway said.
Though she complained to school officials, she said, the incident was “swept under the rug.”
It seems like in 20 years, not much has changed, she said.
“It’s disturbing,” she said. “I’m tired of it.”
The two boys who were arrested in connection with the attack were charged Sept. 18 with assault by means of force likely to produce great bodily injury, according to the Riverside County district attorney’s office.
One of the students has an initial hearing scheduled for Oct. 2; the other has a pretrial hearing set for Oct. 15. The district attorney’s office could not say whether prosecutors were considering upgrading charges in light of the victim’s death.