Thursday, June 02, 2005

Saved By The Bell, for some; For others, the Death of Innocence

This morning the Glenview School District and a former Glenview school teacher [and now new Winnetka Greeley School principal] reached a settlement of the lawsuit filed by the parents of Catherine “Casey” Fish, a sixth grader from Glenview who choked to death on marshmallows while playing a classroom game.

As reported in this online article by the Chicago Tribune's Lisa Black, Thomas DiCianni, counsel for defendants Glenview School District and former Glenview Teacher Kevin Dorken, said the settlement was not unusual for this type of case and was not an admission of guilt or innocence. Of course, that is a boilerplate statement that all defense counsel toss out when their clients fork over substantial sums of money to the lawsuit’s plaintiff, in an effort to say—“Of course, my client wasn’t necessarily guilty. Although, the jury could have so concluded, so why take a chance.”

Francis Patrick Murphy, the lawyer for the family of the deceased sixth grader, Casey Fish, said he had been prepared to call to the stand today Casey’s parents and the defendant former Glenview teacher, Kevin Dorken, who the lawsuit alleged left Casey and other students unattended while the children in the Hoffman Elementary School classroom played “Chubby Bunny.”

Murphy said the Glenview School District’s $2 million dollar offer, to be covered entirely by insurance, came as a surprise. Quoted in today’s online Chicago Sun-Times, Lawyer Francis Patrick Murphy [Corboy and Demetrio] said it [the $2 million dollars] was what the parents had asked for, although he also said that the case was never about money, but about getting the message across to America that dangerous games should not be played in school, with or without supervision.

Yesterday, as reported in today’s Sun-Times article by Rummana Hussain, a classmate of Casey’s, Elissa Hendricks, who was Casey’s best friend testified that, seconds after stuffing her mouth with marshmallows, Casey’s lips turned purple as she struggled to breathe and motioned for help before choking to death in an unsupervised classroom six years ago.

The article reported that Hendricks saw then Glenview teacher [and Winnetka Greeley School Principal to be] Kevin Dorken run toward the classroom where Casey was-- as Hendricks went across the hall to alert Glenview teacher Linda Friedman, who then proceeded to go to the room and do a finger swipe of Casey’s mouth.

The highly paid [about $300,000 per year] Winnetka Schools [about 2000 students in the School District] Superintendent van der Bogert concluded last year that one of her new principals to be, Kevin Dorken, had not been negligent in this incident. Supt. van der Bogert sent me a statement, which she indicated was delivered at last week’s Winnetka school Board meeting. In the statement, van der Bogert said, “The student [the now deceased, then sixth grader Catherine “Casey” Fish] was not a child in Kevin’s homeroom, but had chosen to take part in an activity that was being run by a team of three teachers including Kevin. Two of those teachers were present at all times.”

Well, perhaps “present,” in some metaphysical sense. Van der Bogert’s conclusion would seem to conflict with the testimony of the student, Hendricks, who was there at the time and testified yesterday at trial she had to go across the hall to alert one of the two teachers who Supt. van der Bogert said “was present all the time” to come and assist the dying sixth grader.

An odd phrasing of words by Supt. van der Bogert when she says the deceased sixth grader “was not a child in Kevin’s homeroom, but had chosen to take part in an activity that was being run by a team of three teachers including Kevin.” It appears to be almost conceded or stipulated by the parties to the lawsuit that there were three stations during this event, with each station being staffed by a separate teacher. No one seems to dispute that Kevin Dorken had left his station and was out in the hall [or somewhere else outside of his room/station] at the time the incident, as the Winnetka Schools Superintent [District 36] calls it, started.

Supt. van der Bogert states that Casey Fish “chose to take part in an activity.” Is the Superintendent suggesting that Casey Fish made the wrong “choice.” As it turns out, I suppose Supt. van der Bogert is right on that score. But, is Supt. van der Bogert suggesting that Casey should bear some responsibility for making the wrong choice? Is this “blame the victim” time? Why is the choice concept introduced by Supt. van der Bogert. I don’t know. She has declined to answer my questions.

What are the facts that led Supt. van der Bogert to conclude that “Two of those teachers were present at all times.” If van der Bogert is right, is she suggesting that teacher Linda Friedman could see across the hall what was happening and “chose” not to do anything until Casey’s friend came running across the hall to alert teacher Friedman.

Remember, it was Supt. van der Bogert, apparently secure in her opinion that Kevin Dorken was not negligent in this matter, who made the decision to recommend to the Winnetka School Board that Dorken be hired for the Winnetka Greeley School Principal position, last Deember, without telling her Board or the Winnetka community about this “incident,” as Dr. van der Bogert calls it.

Thomas DiCianni, counsel for the Glenview School District and then Glenview teacher Kevin Dorken [and Winnetka Greeley School Principal to be], had argued that because of the way the classrooms were laid out, other teachers could still see into Dorken's room. I suppose the operative word in DiCianni’s argument would be “could,” as opposed to say, would. "Woulda, coulda, shoulda"? Counsel Thomas DiCianni did not return my voicemail message of last week to discuss the lawsuit and trial.

A forensic pathologist from the Cook County medical examiner’s office testified yesterday that Casey Fish died from choking and didn’t appear to have any other health problems. Some people, perhaps, were Saved by the Bell, today, but not Casey Fish. I am reminded of John Donne’s poem, which reads, “Thus with each individual's death, a little bit of every other person dies. [So] when you hear the tolling of the church bell, don't send to ask for whom the bell tolls- it tolls for thee.”

Yes, but some of us died a little more than others on June 4, 1999 at the Glenview Elementary School. And, some of us wanted to know a little bit more about what happened and why it happened than apparently did and do the Winnetka Schools Superintendent and her School Board.

Oh yes, as Bob Sirott is wont to say on Chicago Tonight, one more thing. Judge Deborah Dooling announced the two million dollar settlement this morning and then dismissed the jury that was hearing the case in the Daley Center in downtown Chicago. The Fish family lawyer, Patrick Francis Murphy, reports that before leaving, the jurors asked to meet with Casey’s parents and expressed their sympathy.

Looks like the insurance company for the Glenview School District and Kevin Dorken made the right decision this morning. Two million dollars? Cheap at twice the price.
Jeff Berkowitz, Host and Producer of Public Affairs and an Executive Recruiter doing Legal Search, can be reached at