Milford to pay $5 million to settle Maren Sanchez killing at high school
MILFORD — The city has reached a $5 million settlement with the family of 16-year-old high school girl slain by a classmate in school, but her mother said no lawsuit win can ever make up for the loss of her only child — her hearbeat.
“It has been almost six long years since Maren was stolen from us. This journey has been one of insurmountable anguish and grief, as well as hope. The physical loss of such a vibrant, loving, magnificent, magical soul that was Maren is something that no lawsuit can ever make up for,” said Donna Cimarelli, mother of victim Maren Sanchez.
Cimarelli has turned the tragedy into advocacy through the Maren Sanchez Home Foundation, becoming a powerhouse in the education of young women to recognize the signs of emotional and psychological abuse and go with their gut instinct. Cimarelli has said Sanchez might still be alive today if she had such training. There is also a physical self-defense component to the foundation.
In Sanchez’s case, the teen had alerted a school guidance counselor to her killer’s troubling behaviors, but never followed through with a plan to correct the situation.
The settlement was reached after a Superior Court judge refused to grant the city’s motion to dismiss the case, finding that the estate had presented substantial evidence to support its contention that school counselors had failed to comply with the mandatory provisions of school district policies adopted to prevent school violence.
City Attorney Jonathan Berchem said in response to the settlement, “Milford grieves with the Sanchez family and did not object to this settlement, which was agreed to by the (school) Board’s insurer in order to avoid prolonged and expensive litigation for all concerned, which would not have brought closure to anyone.”
David S. Golub, of the Stamford law firm of Silver Golub & Teitell LLP, attorneys for the estate, said, “This settlement recognizes the importance of compliance with school anti-violence policies. Especially in these times where violence in schools is so prevalent, the school personnel’s failure to comply with the mandatory provisions of the District’s policy was inexcusable. This tragedy did not have to occur.”
But, Berchem added, “the Milford Board of Education and City of Milford vehemently denied the allegations contained in the lawsuit filed by the Estate of Maren Sanchez and were prepared to defend against this case at trial.”
He said contrary to Golub’s claims, the school’s anti-violence policies were not implicated in this case.
“If the case had proceeded to trial, defense witnesses, including nationally recognized school counseling experts, would have testified that the Milford Public Schools follow best practices and were not in any way at fault. In sum, Milford was confident that it would have prevailed at trial,” Berchem said.
The settlement has not yet been approved by the Probate Court, but it will not require any out-of-pocket expense to the board or city. The settlement will be paid by the board’s insurer, he said. As part of the settlement, the parties agree there was no wrongdoing on the part of the board, or its employees, he said.
Sanchez was a popular junior, and a free spirit who cut her own hair, threw together her own creative outfits, performed at every opportunity, volunteered at food banks, and packed a lot of living into her short life, her mom has said.
In 2016, Christopher Plaskon pleaded no contest to a murder charge in the killing of Sanchez inside Jonathan Law High School in on April 25, 2014. Plaskon is serving a 25-year prison sentence.
Jonathan Law High School Principal Francis Thompson testified in the case that the board’s policy was intended to protect students like Sanchez and had been violated by the counselors’ failure to notify the school administration of her report, so that a Clinical Intervention Team could be convened to address Plaskon’s condition and any safety concerns.
Former Assistant Principal Paul Cavanna testified in the case that the mandatory provisions of the policy had previously been invoked to deal with potentially violent students on more than 10 occasions and always been successful in preventing student harm.
Cimarelli has said Sanchez is always with her and it is her daughter’s spirit that channels energy through her to put back into the foundation.
“During this difficult time, we have chosen to focus our energies on the efforts of the Foundation that proudly bears Maren’s name, The Maren Sanchez Home Foundation. Our mission — then, now and forever — will be to educate and empower young women by helping to provide them with the tools they need to defend themselves against emotional, physical and psychological manipulation and abuse,” a statement by Cimarelli through her lawyer stated.
“Maren lives on through her foundation, which will pay it forward by continuing its work in the hope that the events that led to her tragic and brutal death, which could have been prevented had mandatory reporting procedures been followed, never happen again.”
When Cimarelli first launched the Maren Sanchez Home Foundation at University of New Haven in October 2016, she spoke in detail to an audience of mostly women, about how all the warning signs about Plaskon were there, but the school didn’t act even when Sanchez expressed worry to a counselor.
Cimarelli also spoke of how women are conditioned in this society to be nice and accommodating, even when their gut instinct tells them otherwise.
Since that launch, the foundation has grown exponentially: Cimarelli has told Sanchez’s story to thousands of young women and has had hundreds more trained in self-defense.
She heard after Sanchez’s death that she had become so uncomfortable with Plaskon that Sanchez once hid behind a board in a classroom, telling a fellow student, “‘Shhhh. I just don’t want to see him,’ when they asked why she was hiding.”
Cimarelli herself said she witnessed her daughter’s angst at home involving Plaskon, asking Sanchez more than once upon returning home from work, “What’s wrong?”
He had been threatening through text messages to kill himself, she said. On another occasion, Sanchez had been worried because he was outside in freezing weather without a coat on and complained he didn’t have a ride home.
Many of Plaskon’s actions, Cimarelli would later learn, were warning signs that are typically red flags of control and manipulation that can lead to violence.
Cimarelli puts no limits on where the foundation can go and has said the hope is it will become an international force.
One thing is certain to Cimarelli — that Sanchez may not be here physically now, but she is always close spiritually and Cimarelli, as well as others, say they can feel Sanchez’s presence.
Days after Sanchez was fatally stabbed, a bereft Cimarelli lay in the bed unable to sleep, when she heard her daughter say, “Mommy, rest because what we’re going to do is really big.”
Cimarelli has said Sanchez was her greatest joy and “reason” in life — for everything she did, from earning a living at her massage therapy business, to providing a stable home and opportunities for Maren.
“If this could happen to someone like Maren who was confident, it could happen to anyone,” Cimarelli said.
“The blows that came to Maren on that dreadful morning were meant to silence her and to stop her loving heart from beating, to steal her voice and her infectious joy for life.” Cimarelli said at the UNH launch. “But I am here to tell you that that was not accomplished. (Through the foundation), Maren’s voice will be louder than it ever has been before and her heart will beat stronger than ever to help change the lives of young girls who are being psychologically, mentally and physically manipulated all over the world.”
The settlement was reached after two full days of mediation before retired Connecticut Superior Court Judge Antonio Robaina.
In January, a Superior Court judge refused to throw out a lawsuit against the city and the Board of Education by the Sanchez family.
In a 32-page decision, Judge Barry Stevens did not accept the argument by the city that Plaskon intended to kill Sanchez and that there were no actions the school system could have taken to prevent it.
“Sanchez’s report that Plaskon was exhibiting suicidal ideation was an indication of an emotional problem sufficient to trigger the mandatory procedure of the Suicide Prevention and Intervention Procedure,” the judge ruled in denying the city’s motion for summary judgment.
Security video showed Plaskon arriving at school early that morning and wandering the hallways. When he met up with Sanchez, Plaskon followed her into a stairwell and, out of sight of the cameras, he stabbed her in the chest and neck.