Fear: that’s the word Anthony Motta Jr. uses to describe most of his time at Eldred Junior Senior High school in Sullivan County, New York.
"You're always watching over your shoulder," he said. "Wondering what's going to happen.
For roughly five years, Motta Jr. says he was bullied relentlessly by a group of students. They called him names. They mocked his speech impediment. He said they even urinated on his hat. And when he fought a student in an attempt to stand up for himself -- he was suspended by the district for a month.
Motta's parents filed a suit against the district after that suspension and just last week, jurors awarded the family $1 million in a unanimous verdict, finding the district failed to enforce its own anti-bullying policies. Jury foreman Jodi Taylor told the I-Team that the amount -- the largest in a bullying case in county history -- should send a message to other districts.
“The whole thing was very sad,” said Taylor. “It was evident that they just dropped the ball.”
Motta, who had graduated since the suit was filed and is now 20 years old, said that the bullying started in seventh grade with vulgar, sexually charged and ethnic name calling. They also mocked the way he spoke because he had a speech impediment. He said he still feels the effects.
“Migraines, stomach aches, nightmares,” he said. “I still have nightmares.”
At points, the bullying turned physical. Motta said at one point, a classmate bet another kid a quarter, that he could choke out Anthony in the school library.
"He pulled me up from behind and choked me out almost completely,” Motta. recounted. “I almost felt like i was going to blackout”
Court records and emails show the abuse only escalated. Between 2010 and 2013, his bullies tossed his backpack as they stood around Motta in a circle, spilled milk on him by flipping over his lunch tray, urinated on his hat, and struck him in the chest with an orange.
“Every day I was waiting,” said Motta’s mother. “I was afraid of getting a phone call that something had happened at school.”
The Mottas said they reported the bullying, but they didn’t believe the principal or the school district protected their son. In a court deposition, the principal said he tried to help Anthony – “but he was not opening up to me about anything.
As Motta faced failing grades and mounting absences because he was afraid to go to school, his father, Anthony Motta Sr., told him to defend himself.
“I explained to him that the school wasn’t doing anything,” said the father. “I told him, ‘You need to now stand up for yourself.’”
Motta did just that. One day in computer class, Motta said another student came up to him, poked him, called him names, and told him his work was terrible. That’s when Motta said he walked over to ask him to stop. The student in turn placed a hand on his chest as if to push him away.
“I had a flashback of everything that happened, “ said Motta. “I ended up punching him, threw him to the floor and I ended up hitting him a couple more times.”
That boy suffered a concussion and Motta was suspended for more than a month.
That was when the Mottas filed a lawsuit against the school district.
“We hope this case sends a message to the parents of children,” said attorney JenniElena Rubino. “That bullying’s not okay.”
In a statement, the school district said, “We are very disappointed in the decision. Our legal team and insurance company are evaluating the outcome to determine if an appeal will be filed. All of Eldred Central School District’s faculty and staff have always been and will continue to be committed to providing a safe environment for students, protecting students' rights, and complying with state laws.
“Our staff are attentive, watchful, and supportive, and I can assure you that any report of bullying is taken very seriously and is thoroughly investigated. The District provides training to staff, and students participate in numerous programs designed to prevent bullying and promote civility and acceptance. Many supports are also in place for students experiencing any difficulties, including the availability of guidance counselors, school psychologists, and a social worker.
“We will continue our efforts to teach children compassion, kindness, and responsibility, and to raise awareness of the negative consequences of bullying. We will continue to be vigilant and address instances of bullying when witnessed or reported, and we will continue to do our best to ensure our schools are safe and welcoming places for all students.
“To this end, Dr. John Morgano, our Interim Superintendent of Schools, will conduct a comprehensive review of policy and procedures for reporting of bullying incidents, as well as complete a thorough evaluation of current training provided to faculty, staff, and student and will offer recommendations for improvements, as necessary.”