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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
TAMPA -- After a bully attacked Danny Heidenberg at Hillel School of Tampa, his parents complained to the principal of the Jewish community day school.
When the bully broke 12-year-old Danny's arm in January 2004, they sued.
On Monday, a Hillsborough jury ordered the school to pay $4-million for failing to keep Danny safe.
Now 16, he has permanent nerve damage in his left hand and likely won't be able to follow in his surgeon parents' footsteps. The verdict sends a strong message to schools, the family's attorney said.
"Schools have to wake up to the point that bullying is serious and supervision is serious," said David Tirella, an attorney with Cohen, Jayson & Foster. "They allowed a bully to escalate."
Hillel officials and their attorney would not comment.
Jurors, some of them parents and grandparents, had to decide whether Danny's injuries resulted from unavoidable roughhousing between preteen boys or the school faculty's inadequate supervision of bullying.
The issue isn't unique to Hillel, a private school on Fletcher Avenue. During the 2006-07 school year, Hillsborough public schools reported 266 bullying incidents. Officials concede such incidents are vastly under-reported.
Lewis Brinson, Hillsborough's assistant superintendent for administration, said he constantly warns principals that someone is going to get sued for negligence if they are not vigilant about addressing bullying.
"They're probably tired of me saying it," he said.
Danny Heidenberg and his parents, board-certified doctors Howard Heidenberg and Sandra Goodman, claim everyone knew a certain student at Hillel was a bully.
The bully, a 7th-grader like Danny, called students names, taunted them and beat them up. Football games at recess were supposed to be "touch only," but the student purposely hit other boys hard enough to hurt them, according to the lawsuit.
Danny's parents complained in late 2003 after learning the student had assaulted their son at least twice. Dr. Heidenberg asked the principal to protect Danny.
If the school took any action to address the bully's behavioral issues, it didn't work.
On Jan. 29, 2004, a group of boys played contact football at the school. The bell rang. A teacher directed them inside.
The teacher went in ahead of students, the suit said. The bully chastised Danny for not joining the football game. Then he threw a football at Danny and tackled him.
Danny tried to get up. The bully jumped him, breaking two bones in his left arm. Danny screamed in pain.
After three surgeries, Danny still suffers from paralysis, Tirella said. He can't control each individual finger on his left hand. He can't type. Once a ranked junior tennis player, he now struggles for playing time on his Tampa Preparatory team.
Dr. Goodman, Danny's mother, described his injuries as "a permanent, lifelong disability" but didn't want to linger on his limitations.
She said the lawsuit was about "accountability and moral justice," not money.
"So much of this is letting him know that there is justice," she said. "This has been so incredibly emotionally painful for my husband and myself and for my son."
Of the $4-million verdict, the jury awarded $2.8-million to Danny for past and future pain and suffering. He also got $30,000 for medical expenses, Tirella said.
Brinson said public schools should take notice of the jury's decision.
"At no time should students be unsupervised," he said. "No time. It's just not acceptable."
The bully was not named in the lawsuit. Tirella said the school also let him down by not helping him change his behavior.
The family hasn't gotten the apology it hoped for from Hillel officials. But during the week-long trial, Tirella said, the boy who bullied Danny said he was sorry.
Staff writer Letitia Stein contributed to this story. Colleen Jenkins can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3337.