Joe Golden's description of his life in high school sounds like the darkest spoof of teenage cruelty: Other students shoved his head in a plastic bag and hit him, banished him from every lunch table with expletives and threatened to kill him. Even teachers ridiculed him, he said, calling him "psycho" and accusing him of staring at people until they felt uncomfortable.
But after years of unsatisfying meetings with Spotsylvania County school officials, Golden and his family decided to seek "closure" for his years at Chancellor High School the American way: They sued. But what's unusual about this suit is that the alleged bullies are named as defendants.
Golden, who graduated in June, filed a lawsuit in July in Circuit Court against three former classmates, alleging assault, battery and "severe anxiety, anguish, trepidation, fear and loss of confidence and trust." The suit seeks a total of $450,000 from the three, in addition to legal fees or any other punitive damages a jury might award.
"He's not the greatest, but he's surviving," Arnold Golden said last week of his son, who is enrolled at Columbia College in Chicago. His son, whom he described as a "mama's boy" and a "homebody," probably would have chosen to go to college in Virginia but left because of the bad memories.
American youths rate bullying and teasing as their biggest problem, according to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation. A survey by a Loudoun County commission on youth ranked it high as well. But one of the nation's experts on school safety issues said lawsuits involving bullying typically target the school system -- not other students.
"Generally, lawsuits have focused on the deep-pockets theory of suing the school," said Ron Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center and executive editor of a school crime prevention journal. He called bullying "one of the most underrated and enduring problems" in schools.
Owaiian M. Jones, the Goldens' attorney, said the family wanted to hold teachers and school officials responsible but thought that state laws would grant them immunity as public servants. Arnold Golden said he began meeting with school officials when his son was a sophomore and was going to the school weekly by the boy's senior year. Eight to 10 teachers were involved in either "harassing" Joe or ignoring students who did, according to Jones and Golden, although the teachers were not named in the suit.
"They just didn't care. We just decided we weren't going to hold back," Joe Golden said in an interview from Chicago, where he said life is great, though he still feels considerable "anger and emotion" about the bullying he endured at Chancellor.
Spotsylvania School Superintendent Jerry W. Hill said the lawsuit "alleges that it happened a lot more than school officials could have seen. . . . All I can say is when we knew something happened, kids were punished."
When asked about the specific punishments, however, he said he had not "looked at the file." There was "an incident or two," Hill said, but "not to the level that one would expect a lawsuit."
Arnold Golden said school officials would not tell them whether the alleged harassers had been punished and if so, how. He said they did not respond to an Aug. 2 letter to the School Board in which the family laid out Joe's four years at Chancellor High. It was not clear whether every board member received it, and Hill said he did not alert them to it because it mentioned legal action and thus was a matter for county lawyers, "not a matter I'd share with the board."
Ray Lora, a board member and former high school teacher who now trains law enforcement officers, said: "My reaction was, as a father, it's a sad situation. I'm sad that he hasn't gotten over that. Every kid has a rough time, but you have to kind of overcome it."
The three defendants named in the suit apparently were minors when the alleged incidents occurred. A phone call to one boy's home was not answered; the phone at a second's was disconnected; and the mother of the third said she had never heard of the suit and would not comment.
The court file contains the name of only one defense attorney, representing one of the boys. The lawyer, William Sokol, filed a motion Oct. 7 asking that his client be removed from the suit because it fails to show that the alleged abuse was "a probable, direct and proximate cause" of Golden's anxiety and anguish.
Joe Golden -- who ran track, enjoyed history and wants to be a teacher -- suffered through his four years at Chancellor, his father said, noting that the boy's five older siblings had gone through the county's school system without trouble. All of his children were born in Spotsylvania, said Arnold Golden, who carries a photo his children had taken of themselves at the local mall just before Joe entered high school. In the photo, Joe beams from the lower-right corner.
"It just accelerated through school," said Arnold, who added that he would not allow his son to leave Chancellor to escape the hazing. "He had worked hard, and I wanted him to graduate where he started. I didn't want to move him. Maybe it was a mistake. I was more stubborn than anything. I told him, 'Joe, you have to stand strong.' "
Daniel Fisher, 17, a senior at Chancellor who played recreational soccer with Golden, said he never witnessed Golden being seriously harassed but did see him get picked on because he was what Fisher called "an average kid" -- apparently not coming from a family with a lot of money or being part of a "cool" social group, which was the same way Fisher described himself. Golden was also very friendly with teachers, Fisher said, something that would immediately make him a target.
"He was just the perfect specimen for bullies to pick on," Fisher said.