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Teen awarded $1M in bullying lawsuit shares why she ‘forgives’ former classmates

Eleri Irons, 18, won a lawsuit against her former California middle school for its failure to protect her from bullies.
Eleri Irons (center) successfully sued her former school in El Segundo, California, for failing to protect her from bullies. She is pictured with attorney Christa Ramey (left) and co-counsel Siannah Collado (right).
Eleri Irons (center) successfully sued her former school in El Segundo, California, for failing to protect her from bullies. She is pictured with attorney Christa Ramey (left) and co-counsel Siannah Collado (right).Courtesy Howard Breuer
/ Source: TODAY

A California teen awarded $1 million by a court that determined her former school didn't stop her bullies is speaking out, she says, "to bring attention to other kids going through similar situations."

Eighteen-year-old Eleri Irons is a former student of El Segundo Middle School in California where she attended grades six through eight. In 2017, she suffered months of “bullying, tormenting, and aggression” by three “known bullies” per an April 2019 lawsuit filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

According to a press release sent to TODAY Parents by Eleri's attorney Christa Ramey, the trio called the teen "a liar, whore, cheater and boyfriend-stealer, flipped her off and made fun of her in the hallways, and even slapped her in the face. They screamed at her in person and harassed her online."

The lawsuit states that school staff "ignored the bullying ... failed to supervise students, and failed to follow the applicable policies and procedures on handling bullying and disciplining bullies."

Eleri told TODAY Parents that a "love triangle" first ruined her friendship with two of the girls, who were then egged on by a third. All the students were between the ages of 13 and 14.

Eleri Irons (center) won a $1 million lawsuit against El Segundo Middle School in California for not stopping her former bullies. She's pictured here with attorney Christa Ramey (left) and co-counsel Siannah Collado (right).
Eleri Irons (center) won a $1 million lawsuit against El Segundo Middle School in California for not stopping her former bullies. She's pictured here with attorney Christa Ramey (left) and co-counsel Siannah Collado (right).Courtesy Howard Breuer

"That's why it was so hard — they weren't some random girls," she said.

Eleri said after the dispute, her former friends began staring, pointing and making crude gestures when she walked by. "I tried talking to them but it didn't help," she said.

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Eleri reached out to her school counselor, who — according to a timeline Eleri’s legal team shared with TODAY Parents — invited two of the girls to an October 2017 meeting. Eleri says the meeting was unproductive and that the counselor never followed up with her with a plan of action.

After the meeting, said Eleri, the bullying worsened. "I got mean and very vulgar social messages," she said.

The teen turned to her parents Natalie and Christopher Irons, who corresponded with the former school principal several times. During one of those meetings, Eleri was told by her parents, "The principal said she would handle it," said Eleri.

Eleri said she spoke up on another occasion: her school's "Challenge Day," a November 28 event on social-emotional learning. Students were split into smaller groups, led by adults, to share their feelings on any topic.

"I talked openly about being bullied and how it was a hard time," she said. "But the adult in my group never followed up with me."

Eleri’s mom reached out to the mother of one of the girls for resolution, however, “She was very defensive,” Eleri said.

The teen attended school each day with knots in her stomach, spending most lunch periods in the nurse's office. "I didn’t feel safe walking around to find someone to sit with,” she said. Other times, she called her mom to pick her up early, resulting in unexcused absences, said Ramey.

"I was very anxious," Eleri added. "In the beginning, I cut myself because it was too much to handle."

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Eleri felt unprotected at school. "I was very confused — I kept reporting (the bullying) but nothing changed and as a kid, you question that. I wasn't sure if I did enough or why there was miscommunication. No one listened, except my parents."

In the classroom, Eleri's performance declined, particularly in English and Spanish, two classes she shared with the "ring leader" of the group.

By January, Eleri's parents agreed to allow Eleri to transfer to a private high school; in March, the family learned that Eleri had been accepted into a private school in nearby Culver City.

"I was so excited to make new friends and have a fresh start," she recalled.

However, Eleri still needed to get through the rest of the school year — including an eighth grade field trip to Knott's Berry Farm, where Ramey said a group of kids taunted Eleri while following her around.

"She made it to the bus before anyone else and was alone crying," said Ramey.

The following day, Eleri’s parents met with the former principal to discuss what happened at the theme park. Then, that evening, Natalie received a phone call from another parent. “She said a ‘Petition to End Eleri Irons’ Life’ had circulated earlier that day,” said Eleri, adding that it was signed by several students.

The lawsuit said that teachers discovered the petition but did not notify Eleri's parents. When Eleri informed her parents, Christopher contacted the former principal to request a next-day meeting. "He said, 'If you don't call the police, I will,'" said Eleri.

According to the press release, although the former principal testified that she’d called police "immediately" about the petition, "school police testified that they were not called the day of the death threat, but instead minutes before Irons’ parents were to meet" with the principal the following morning.

A spokesperson from the El Segundo Police Department did not reply to TODAY Parents' requests for comment.

Ramey told TODAY Parents that school logs confirmed that two of the girls were suspended for the petition.

On Aug. 25, a Los Angeles jury determined that El Segundo Unified School District was negligent in both causing harm to Eleri and in the training and supervision of its employees.

The ruling, sent to TODAY Parents by Ramey, cites the three girls by name, but Eleri and her team asked TODAY Parents to protect their identities.

"I forgive them," said Eleri. "I always wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt because I (once) valued their friendship. They didn't get the intervention they needed either. The school failed me and them."

Ramey agreed. "We don't blame the girls for what happened," she told TODAY Parents, adding that she argued for "zero negligence" on one minor named in the suit.

When asked for comment, El Segundo Unified School District Superintendent Melissa Moore told TODAY Parents in a statement:

“As a school district, we respect the ruling of the court and acknowledge the findings of the lawsuit. The next steps are up to our legal counsel. As we move forward, we are committed to self-improvement and doing everything we can to prevent bullying in our schools."

The statement referenced specific steps to prevent future incidents: The addition of two Student Safety Assistant positions at two of its elementary schools and a "tailored security assessment for all schools" along with "the implementation of a comprehensive school district safety plan."

"Additionally, we have implemented a series of recommendations from a third-party comprehensive safety assessment that was conducted in 2018," read the statement. "These include behavioral threat assessment protocol training for staff, the use of We Tip website to anonymously report concerns related to bullying, physical safety enhancements at our middle and high schools, and two new safety staff members. As an extra layer of protection, our Gaggle alert system flags any potential bullying occurring online."

"The safety and wellbeing of our students is our top priority," concluded the statement. "We will continue to take the steps necessary to ensure a safe, welcoming, and inclusive learning environment for all.”

Eleri, who has gotten therapy since middle school, now attends the University of San Diego where she studies neuroscience.

"Part of the reason I became interested in psychology and neuroscience is because of this experience,” she said, adding that she hopes to work with adolescents. "I was curious how people could do something of this nature.”

Eleri also received letters and notes from people who were once bullied.

"Now they feel comfortable sharing their stories," she said. "I want to use my voice to give others a voice."