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Aspen Story - Anti-Bullying Advocates

Aspen’s Story

At a young age, Aspen had a beautiful innocence in his eyes, one that captured the attention of booking agents that thought he had the perfect look for magazine ads of products such as children’s clothing.  His mother agreed.  Her son had a special look that would fit the mold of a young modeling career: blonde hair, deep blue eyes, clean cut and a carefree smile.  She facilitated his young modeling career, which took off organically, and before soon he was being featured as one of the main models for popular clothing lines.  Aspen would pose in anything from swimwear to sweaters, sometimes smiling with spunk other times looking deep into the camera with serious intentions, connecting with the viewer.  Aspen was talented as a young model.  He could follow directions of the photographer while performing on an instinctual level that made photo shoots seamless, spontaneous, and captivating.  In school, Aspen had the same energy that he brought to his modeling career.  Eager to please teachers, very intelligent and outgoing, charismatic and thirsty for acknowledgement of his skills and talent.  The type of student that would raise his hand to answer every question.  Unfortunately, Aspen came across a sixth-grade teacher that didn’t quite mesh with a child of that personality style and a careless, inconsiderate misstep by this teacher began a bullying trajectory that changed Aspen’s life forever. 

Aspen’s sixth grade teacher had many years of experience, came across hundreds of students, was feeling the burn-out of the job, and had a chip on her shoulder, in particular when it came to Aspen.  She didn’t like the know-it-all kid that had a bright modeling career.  She began picking on Aspen about the way he referred to himself, nicknaming him Mr. I, because when he spoke in class, he referred to himself often (i.e. “I went to a photo shoot yesterday. I like to do math.  I am good at reading.”)  She saw him as self-absorbed, single child and let him know it.  She would have passive-aggressive digs towards him, constantly referring to him as Mr. I, and having a sarcastic tone when talking to him in front of the class.  Although it was subtle, Aspen naturally felt uncomfortable.  The the class felt the tension.  It wasn’t long until other students picked up the vibe that the teacher was modeling and started treating Aspen with the same contempt.  But a pinnacle moment in his sixth-grade year was when the teacher posted on the projector a full-page ad that Aspen had modeled for in a magazine that showed him bare chested.  Aspen was proud of his modeling accolades and didn’t hide the fact that he did shoots on the weekends or that he was featured by some big-name companies.  His sixth-grade teacher didn’t appreciate the pride and saw it as bragging, perhaps pretentious.  One day while the students were at recess she posted a life-size picture of him on the projector from one of the magazines.  As the students walked in, they saw it and started giggling and gawking, discussing it with each other and the teacher.  Aspen was one of the last students to walk in and was aghast at what was happening.  It was as if everyone was mocking him and his sixth-grade teacher setting it up.  From there on out, the other classmates were relentless with taunting in and out of the classroom.  Aspen stopped raising his hand, stopped having a desire for positive reinforcement based on academic knowledge and participation, and didn’t want to come to school. 

It didn’t take long for students to make assumptions about his modeling career and his sexuality, coupled with a bullying dynamic that ignited in tremendous fashion.  Students started calling him “homo” “faggot” “queer” “Aspen the Queer” and the like.  Any friends he had turned away, knowing that in the social structure of junior high school, a target like Aspen was radioactive to be friends with.  As time went on, the verbal bullying developed, going from one to five homophobic slurs a day to fifteen to twenty comments of verbal abuse.  The bullying was being reported by his mother both verbally and in written dialogue.  But little to no action was taken to investigate the seriousness of the bullying dynamic or take action steps to protect Aspen.  Mom was being ignored or given empty promises that the school was looking into the problem.  The verbal and relational bullying (being ostracized with the intention of dominating another as a target of bullying) eventually transformed into physical bullying when Aspen was challenged to fight just outside the school.  It was a no-win situation.  If he backed down, the other students would sense weakness and the bullying would intensify.  If he plays into the physical threats, win or lose the fight, he would get in trouble with the school and someone else would want to challenge Aspen to a fight to be the next one to show their dominance over their bullying target.  Aspen walked outside and was sucker punched, falling down the stairs. Despite the bullying history and not being the aggressor, Aspen was disciplined for the “fight”.  Soon thereafter, physical bullying became a weekly event with shoves, shoulder checks, pushes, and smacks throughout the hallway.  Both Aspen’s parents reported the abuse but nothing changed.  In fact, Aspen’s father was a police officer, well respected in the community, but despite his position of power and authority he had no control over the situation that was physically and psychologically detrimental to his only son.  The school was in parenti loci (Laten for “in the place of the parent”) and were not only in control but fully responsible for his child’s safety and wellbeing.  In that supervision, they were negligent, hence the legal cause of action “negligent supervision”.   

Into the early years of high school the homophobic taunts, threats, and physicality was constant.  Again Aspen had a watershed moment in his early life that would impact him forever.  He had joined the wrestling team hoping to gain some self-defense skills and respect from his peers.  Aspen was skinny though and was in one of the lower weight classes.  One of the bullies that had been incessantly taunting and threatening Aspen was also on the wrestling team.  There was a long history of the bullying with this particularly aggressive bully and the school repeatedly disciplined him after confirming allegations made by Aspen’s parents.  The disciplinary actions the school took began dissuading the bully from direct confrontations with Aspen.  But being that the bullying dynamic was well at play and that bullies have multiple tools at their disposal to target the bullied, whether that be directly or indirectly, this bully found another way to reach his intended target.  The bully knew that he was facing expulsion if he bullied Aspen again.  Although the disciplinary action was one of the proper action steps to take by the school, if not handled properly, it could intensify the bullying dynamic…and it did.  Despite disciplinary action, school administrators did not isolate the student doing the targeting and avoid any and all contact with Aspen.  They were on the same wrestling team, which meant they shared a significant amount of time in the same space, including the locker room.  One day while in the locker room just before wrestling practice, the bully wanted to challenge Aspen to a wrestle scrimmage but knew that would jeopardize his placement within the school.  Instead, the bully convinced another teammate, one that was larger, older, and in another weight class than Aspen, to challenge Aspen to a “wrestling scrimmage” just before practice got underway.  An important factor, especially as it pertains to legal standards and litigation, is that the gym teacher had previously warned the boys about not doing scrimmages or practicing moves prior to practice and without his supervision.  Apparently, the school was aware of the impending danger of students being unsupervised while doing wrestling (i.e. Notice).  Besides that specific Notice, the school was well aware of the bullying dynamic that had targeted Aspen.  Essentially the bully convinced a domineering upperclassman to fight Aspen and Aspen was again in a no-win situation.  The two wrestled just before practice, despite the coach warning students that they are not allowed to have side wrestle matches before or after practice or without his supervision.  Furthermore, there was a gap in the matting that was laid down in the gym which had exposed cement floor.  Aspen and the upperclassman wrestled with the other teammates jeering and cheering on, along with the mastermind bully that had set up the entire confrontation.  Obviously, the upperclassman dominated the skinnier, younger Aspen.  The so-called scrimmage didn’t last long.  The upperclassmen wrestler pulled an illegal move that due to its dangerous nature, would have cost the teammate a point and warning had it been an official tournament.  Aspen landed headfirst with all his weight and his opponent’s weight on top of him.  Unfortunately, the impact of his head on the floor was coincidently in the gap of the mates where the cement floor was exposed.  Immediately, Aspen went limp and everyone knew something was wrong.  The wrestling coach was alerted and it was apparent that there was some type of impairment.  Aspen was not cognitively functioning properly.  He had experienced a traumatic brain injury when his head was crushed upon impact.  To make matters worse, the school did not implement proper traumatic brain injury protocols.  They called Aspen’s parents to come pick him up rather than sending him to immediate medical attention.  By the time Aspen’s parents got to the school, he was having difficultly remembering simple things and slurring his speech.   

Aspen parents rushed him to the hospital and it was confirmed that he had a traumatic brain injury.  Due to the severity of his injury, Aspen would have a long recovery and had to take time off from school.  The school in the meantime investigated what happened and again dismissed the bullying dynamic.  From their myopic perspective, Aspen was a victim of an unfortunate accident that was unforeseeable.  Suspiciously, foreseeability is a major factor in liability for a negligent supervision cause of action.  Each and every bullying injury such as Aspen’s is foreseeable, so admitting bullying was a part of his severe injury or that there was any way to foresee the danger he was experiencing would be detrimental to a defense.  Shockingly, the bullying didn’t end there. 

Eventually Aspen came back to school, this time with a major learning disability of cognitive delay and impairment.  He had light sensitivity which required special glasses indoors and outdoors.  He would get headaches often.  He would be easily fatigued, sometimes putting his head down and passing out in class.  Some teachers unaware of his condition or just not understanding would find this disrespectful.  Often Aspen could be overwhelmed by too much information or too many stimuli.  If he had to focus on a problem or was taking a test, his brain would be overwhelmed by the amount of concentration it took to function.  He would experience cognitive confusion.  Due to the severe brain injury he received at school, Aspen required a IEP (Individualized Education Plan) with special education services.  Aspen’s parents had to fight for those accommodations as well.   

Since the bullying dynamic was never addressed along with the culture of bullying that was rampant in this affluent, suburban school, Aspen came back to an unwelcoming and unsafe environment.  Since he was out of school for a period of time, the bullies had distracted themselves with other targets.  But it didn’t take long for them to refocus on Aspen with a new stigma and marker they could take advantage of to re-target him.  Other students quickly found out why Aspen was wearing sunglasses and putting his head down.  They knew that his brain was fragile after experiencing a traumatic brain injury and they took full advantage.  It became a game to the most depraved bullies: who can cause another concussion for Aspen.  Knocks on the head, smacks in the back of the neck, flinching towards him to intimidate or get him to flinch away and jostle his brain became a daily battle.  Aspen was adapting to his new condition and the bullying dynamic that took advantage of his weakness.  Always on high alert, vigilant, hyper-arousal, Aspen was ducking smacks, blocking head hits, and avoiding certain hallways so that his already fragile brain wouldn’t be jeopardized.  Most would miss but some would hit, causing mini-concussions and cognitive confusion.  His parents raised concerns over and over and over again.  They let every school personnel know, from the teachers to the special education coordinators to the Principal and Superintendent, that Aspen was not safe and that his condition was extremely precarious and sensitive.  The bullying dynamic was never addressed setting up the potential for further tragedy.  In the tenth grade, that tragedy took place when another older classman, one that was training to be a boxer, confronted Aspen about a rumor that he was “talking” to his girlfriend and knocked him out with one solid punch.  Aspen laid on the school floor unconscious, experiencing another traumatic brain injury to his already impaired, fragile brain.  Aspen was significantly impaired again, took months out of school to recover, and never returned to that school again as a student.   

Initially Aspen parents went to an education attorney who wasn’t as familiar with Notice of Claim timeframes as the folks at AntiBullyingAdvocates.com. His attorney did the best he could with the knowledge he had but neglected to make certain claims within the appropriate timeframe to secure his case.  Furthermore, there was a grey area in the law that departments had made varying decisions on which made it unclear as to what incidences were timely, which were not, and what motions needed to be made to include all the allegations.  As a side note, Motta v. Eldred made law in the 3rd Department Appellate Division when it came to this issue delineating that if the negligent supervision was continuous and ongoing, then a Notice of Claim within ninety days of the last incident and includes a general description of all prior incidents should suffice.  By the time Aspen was referred to the advocates at AntiBullyingAdvocates.com, it was too late, although they attempted to launch litigation just the same.  Aspen had an incredibly strong case: he was an excellent historian, he testified accurately and factually despite having a traumatic brain injury, his mother documented everything, his father spoke from the heart and his police background demanded attention, his injuries were astronomical both physically and mentally, and the liability was horrendous – school officials knew over and over again but failed to respond, failed protocols failed their own policy, used blame the victim tactics, and clearly could have prevented multiple traumas.  Aspen’s case was dismissed due to the Notice of Claim statute of limitations and no exception was granted.  A great miscarriage of justice, Aspen had to simply move on with his life.  Fortunately, Aspen found a new school for his senior year of high school which did a complete turnaround from the multiple years of abuse he experienced at his former school.  They appreciated him immensely, saw him as the natural leader that he was, and accepted the disabilities he had received from his prior school whether they be complex post-traumatic stress disorder or all the symptoms of his severe traumatic brain injury.  The parents went into significant debt mortgaging they’re home to pay for the initial educational attorney’s legal fees and tuition at a private school.  Aspen struggled to go on to college and maintain an occupation due to his permanent injuries.  His parents continue to support him today.q 

If parts of Aspen’s story connects with you or you’re reading his passage and feeling your family is experiencing a similar situation, you must act now.  Contact the advocates and AntiBullyingAdvocates.com, schedule a consultation, and find out the most crucial timeframes and strategy points of how to take control of the situation.  Aspen’s story, while tragic, is a learning model for anyone battling the bullying dynamic, as are every child’s story who struggle through this epidemic.

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