Education

Family of Ronin Shimizu, who committed suicide, settles with school district for $1M

Ronin Shimizu
Ronin Shimizu Sacramento

The parents of Ronin Shimizu, the 12-year-old boy who committed suicide last year after reports of pervasive bullying, have settled with the Folsom Cordova Unified School District for $1 million.

District officials said the settlement of a claim against the district does not include an admission of wrongdoing. Nevertheless, in response to the tragedy, the district in spring launched an ambitious anti-bullying campaign and social awareness program that goes into full swing this academic year.

Before Ronin took his own life on Dec. 3., he was taunted, ridiculed and physically assaulted on multiple occasions over his perceived gender identification while attending elementary and middle schools in the district, according a mediation brief provided by the family’s attorney, Mark Merin of Sacramento. Parents Danielle and Brandon accepted the $1 million settlement Wednesday after two days of mediation in early August.

Ronin’s death triggered national press attention and an outpouring of grief from thousands of people in the Sacramento region, many of whom did not personally know the youth but recognized the tragedy as one that has become all too common in public schools.

A social media hashtag #RIPRonin, drew posts throughout the last school year. His death inspired rallies, balloon releases, fliers and memorial funds aimed at stopping school bullying.

Merin said because of the many avenues “available for peers to inflict this suffering on each other,” such as cyberbullying, communities need to be more vigilant.

“It takes these tragedies to get the powers to be, the large districts and the Legislature, to bear down in identifying and resolving these kinds of problems,” Merin said.

Ronin ultimately was placed under the care of a psychiatrist and diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, ADHD, anxiety and depression, according to the mediation brief.

The document cited multiple episodes of assault against Ronin tied to his perceived gender identity. He was taunted as “gay,” “girly” and “a fag,” and endured a litany of stress-inducing episodes from fall 2008 forward.

“Every child presents a different list of issues,” Merin said. “Ronin was a very special child and represented his own challenges, and they (his parents) were trying to be supportive of him as he tried to find his own away and develop his own identify.

“But there wasn’t much tolerance of that among his peers, and the district didn’t do enough to try to get him the protection that he needed.”

Merin said Ronin’s parents have asked to maintain their privacy. But they provided a statement through Merin thanking “the thousands of kind people who expressed their condolences, offered their personal support and interest in seeking reform against school bullying. We also appreciate the assistance and support provided to us by the Florin Chapter of the Japanese Americans’ Citizens League.”

Merin’s brief depicted Ronin as a child who had changed elementary schools to escape bullying and described parents who tried ceaselessly to intervene on their son’s behalf and to change how he was treated. It showed that the parents had difficulty enlisting school support for Ronin or response to most perpetrators. They encountered only limited concern over their son’s plight.

In first grade, Ronin was pushed out of the boy’s bathroom and told by a group of boys to use the girl’s bathroom because he likes girl stuff. In second grade, he was pushed into a bathroom sink and split his lip. Soon after, a group of students pushed him face down in the mud and threw his shoes over a fence.

In fourth grade the bullying intensified and was focused on Ronin’s membership in the school’s cheer club, the Vista Jr. Eagles. By January 2012, the brief said, Ronin awoke every day worried about who would pick on him.

The next fall, in the fifth grade, a student poured a fruit cup on Ronin’s head. Ronin was disciplined for cursing at the boy.

By sixth grade, the start of middle school, his pediatrician warned his parents that sending him back to class “was like sending him before a firing squad.” From then on, he was home-schooled but “could not shake the profound distress” he experienced at school. His suicide came 13 months later, on Dec. 3, 2014.

Merin, noting the deep grief the parents feel over the loss of their son, said he encouraged them to achieve settlement rather than endure litigation.

“Very fortunately, the district was of a like mind,” Merin said. “The district recognized litigation was not going to be a beneficial approach to this case.”

Merin’s office, in a press release, said the district has agreed that in the future it will educate students about the pain and trauma that bullying causes and intervene when such behavior comes to officials’ attention. It will train teachers how to recognize and prevent bullying, require parents to review bullying prohibitions with their children, and implement a complaint and investigation procedure to ensure bullies are disciplined.

District Superintendent Deborah Bettencourt, in her own statement, said the district is committed to provide caring school environments for all children.

“This settlement is a fair resolution as our students, staff, and community continue to work together to learn from this episode and prevent another tragedy,” she said. “Our hearts continue to be with Ronin’s family, and we support their efforts to promote kindness, empathy, and positive school climate.”

As in most such cases, the district’s insurance pool is expected to cover the costs of the settlement.

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