Eighth-grader’s family complained of bullying days before fatal assault, legal claim states

Juana Salcedo, guardian of Diego Stolz, weeps at a news conference
Juana Salcedo, guardian of Diego Stolz, weeps at a news conference announcing a lawsuit against the Moreno Valley Unified School District.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

On a Friday in mid-September, Diego Stolz’s adult cousin accompanied him to a meeting with the assistant principal at Landmark Middle School in Moreno Valley.

The eighth-grader had been repeatedly targeted by bullies. The day before, one of them had punched him in the chest and threatened that more violence was coming.

Stolz was scared.

The assistant principal, Kamilah O’Connor, assured him that the bullies would be suspended for three days, starting Monday, and told him he could miss the remainder of the school day.


But when the 13-year-old returned to classes after the weekend, the boys were still there.

They confronted him around lunchtime with a pair of sucker punches that knocked him to the ground. The blows were captured on cellphone video that was posted to Facebook.

Stolz never woke up. He was removed from life support nine days later.

Those are the allegations outlined in a legal claim filed Monday against the Moreno Valley Unified School District on behalf of Stolz’s aunt and uncle, Juana and Felipe Salcedo. The couple raised Stolz as their own after both of his parents died.

“They’re devastated,” said attorney David M. Ring of Taylor & Ring, who is representing the family in the action. “They lost their 13-year-old son for no reason. It was totally preventable, and they’re really having a difficult time coming to grasp that.”

The filing, which is a precursor to a lawsuit, lists damages of $100 million.

The bullying began when Stolz was in seventh grade, Ring said. That year, classmates stole his shoes and other articles of clothing. Juana Salcedo complained to the school’s administration multiple times and was even provided with an anti-bullying pamphlet in response, Ring said. But she felt as though administrators did not take her complaints seriously.

When the bullying resumed with the start of this school year, complaints to administrators also fell on deaf ears, according to the claim.

After he was punched the first time in September, Stolz sought help from a science teacher. The teacher notified O’Connor and urged her to review surveillance footage of the incident, but administrators didn’t look at the footage until after the Sept. 16 assault that resulted in Stolz’s death, the claim states.

“Essentially, the assistant principal, she blew it off,” Ring said. “She made a promise she didn’t keep, and it cost this kid his life.”

The claim states that O’Connor has not returned to the Landmark campus since Sept. 16, nor has the district made her available for an interview with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, which is handling the investigation into Stolz’s death. Attorneys for the family also believe that an incident report that O’Connor prepared detailing the events of Sept. 12, when Stolz was punched the first time, has not been turned over to sheriff’s investigators.

The Moreno Valley Unified School District did not answer questions about O’Connor’s employment status or the Sept. 12 incident report. Anahi Velasco, a spokeswoman for the school district, said in a statement that district officials “respectfully disagree ... that the district is liable for the death of Diego” but would not comment publicly on details of pending litigation and could not disclose information about disciplinary issues by law.

“Our deep sympathies go out to Diego’s family as we share their grief over this tragic incident,” Velasco said. “This is still an active criminal case and the District is fully cooperating with law enforcement.”

Two boys, both 13, have been charged with manslaughter in connection with Stolz’s death. They have denied the allegations and are due back in court Friday for pretrial hearings.

The tragedy rocked the community 10 miles east of Riverside, prompting a string of vigils and community meetings where parents demanded to know what the school was doing to stem the tide of on-campus violence.

In the days following Stolz’s death, parents and former students and staffers described a school where fights are a regular occurrence and administrators have done little to address long-simmering complaints of bullying.

Data provided by the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department in response to an information request show that, between Aug. 1, 2018, and Sept. 23, 2019, deputies responded to calls for service at Landmark Middle School a total of 137 times.

The majority of the calls do not appear to have been serious: 39 were coded as unspecified calls from a business or a mobile device, which usually denote hang-ups, the Sheriff’s Department said. In addition, 17 calls reported an alarm being set off, 29 related to area checks, and eight were requests for follow-up or assistance.

But at least 38 of the calls were related to violent or criminal allegations, including assault, battery, threats , disturbances, and violations of the state Welfare and Institutions Code.

Fourteen calls resulted in police reports. In some cases where the allegations may have been serious enough to warrant a report, investigators did not prepare one because the suspects fled before officers arrived, the Sheriff’s Department said last month.

Two separate calls resulted in police reports on March 19. The first came after deputies were called to the campus for a report of a shooting. After clearing the grounds, they took a 13-year-old student into custody on suspicion of making a false report of an emergency.

About two hours later, sheriff’s deputies again responded to the school for a report of a disturbance and fired pepper balls to break up a fight involving about 50 students. A 14-year-old student was taken into custody on suspicion of battery.

Of the 12 remaining calls that resulted in police reports, three concerned allegations of battery, two related to petty theft, two concerned suspicious circumstances, and one each related to an assault, an alarm being set off, an allegation of criminal threats, a charge of annoying or harassing phone calls, and a violation of the state Welfare and Institutions Code.

In addition to the incidents reflected in the calls, two female Landmark students, ages 12 and 13, were arrested Oct. 14 after allegedly assaulting another student during lunch. The victim was treated by the school nurse for minor injuries.

“They’ve had a long history at the school district of some really serious fights,” Ring said. “They’ve had a lot of problems over the years, especially recently, and my information is they’ve done very little, if anything, to try to curb that violence.”

To that end, in addition to monetary damages, the claim also seeks an injunction forcing the school to enact and enforce additional protections to ensure that no other student is harmed at the hands of bullies.

“Part of this lawsuit is to make them accountable and to start implementing some real procedures to prevent bullying,” Ring said. “And to ensure when they get a complaint that a kid’s being seriously bullied, that they actually take some action and do something about it so another kid doesn’t get killed.”