Parents of slain Carolina Forest High School student settle lawsuit with school, police officials

dwren@thesunnews.comNovember 20, 2012 

The parents of a Carolina Forest High School student who was shot to death by an Horry County police officer in 2009 will receive a “significant” amount of money as part of a settlement agreement in a wrongful death lawsuit filed against police and school officials, according to Georgetown lawyer Ed Bell, who represents the parents of slain student Trevor Varinecz.

Bell said he cannot yet disclose the amount of the settlement because some aspects of the agreement are still being worked out. He said the Horry County Police Department, the S.C. Department of Education and the Horry County School District will split a cash payment to the Varinecz family. That money will come from the S.C. Insurance Reserve Fund, a state agency that provides insurance to governmental entities.

Although police and school officials have agreed to the settlement, they are not admitting any wrongdoing, Bell said.

Horry County spokeswoman Lisa Bourcier referred questions to Michael Wren, a Columbia lawyer who is representing the county’s police department. Wren said he cannot comment on the specifics of the settlement until it is finalized.

“Any agreement that has been worked out will be a matter of public record and filed with the court,” Wren said, adding that there is no timetable for when the settlement agreement will be filed.

Teal Harding, spokeswoman for the Horry County School District, referred questions to the state’s Insurance Reserve Fund. A spokesperson for that agency was not available Tuesday.

The settlement agreement has not yet been filed with the federal court in Florence.

News of the settlement comes days after Trevor Varinecz’s parents, Tom and Karen Varinecz, agreed to dismiss Horry County police officer Marcus Rhodes from the lawsuit. Rhodes’ dismissal means he will not be held personally liable for any payment to the Varinecz family.

Rhodes, a school resource officer, shot and killed Trevor Varinecz on Oct. 16, 2009, after the 16-year-old student attacked Rhodes with a bayonet given to him by his father. Bell described the bayonet as being a “ceremonial bayonet” and not a sharp weapon.

Rhodes was stabbed seven times, suffering superficial injuries, and tried to wrest the bayonet away from Varinecz before shooting the student.

Rhodes – who was cleared of any wrongdoing by investigations conducted by Horry County and the State Law Enforcement Division – said in court filings last week that Trevor Varinecz was depressed and initiated a confrontation with Rhodes “in an attempt to perpetrate ‘suicide by cop’.”

Bell said Trevor Varinecz suffered from Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism that causes children and young adults to have severe trouble dealing with everyday social situations. As a result, such children often are bullied in school, which causes further depression and emotional problems.

Tom and Karen Varinecz alleged in their lawsuit that police and school officials were negligent because they did not provide Rhodes with the proper training to handle emotionally disturbed children such as their son. Rhodes also was not properly equipped because he had no stun gun or pepper spray that would have allowed him to avoid using deadly force, according to the lawsuit. The only equipment Rhodes had during the attack, Bell said, was a baton and a gun.

Bell said resource officers in Horry County now are equipped with stun guns and pepper spray as a result of the Varinecz case, but he believes they still are not receiving proper training.

“If the parents had a magic wand and could go back to the day before, they would have loved to have had a resource officer who was trained to handle the emotional outburst of their child,” Bell said. “If that had been the case, he would have been O.K.”

In addition, children with known emotional problems are shadowed by school district personnel who monitor the child’s interaction with others and prevent bullying and harassment. Trevor Varinecz was to have been shadowed for a period of 900 minutes per week, court documents show, but the school cut that to 45 minutes – without the parents’ knowledge – in the weeks before the shooting.

“This sudden change from a consistent daily routine in a predictable and safe school environment to an inconsistent and unpredictable school environment caused emotional vulnerability and a drastic decline in his overall mental condition,” the parents said in their lawsuit.

Rhodes’ court filing last week details the events that led to the shooting. Varinecz had asked a teacher for permission to leave class so he could visit Rhodes, and Rhodes agreed to close the door to his office to meet with the 11th-grader in private.

“As soon as Varinecz shut the office door he told Rhodes that there was ‘a large spider’ behind Rhodes’ chair,” the court filing states. “Rhodes turned his head away from Trevor to see the spider, and when he turned back to face Varinecz, Varinecz sprang forward from his chair with his bayonet grasped in both hands, aimed at Rhodes’ chest.”

During the struggle, Trevor Varinecz demanded Rhodes’ police weapon and stated “I have no reason to live” and “Just shoot me,” according to the court filing.

As Rhodes was being stabbed, he drew his pistol with one hand while struggling with Trevor Varinecz with the other hand.

“Rather than lessening the conflict, Varinecz then became even more difficult to contain and even more resolved for [Rhodes] to shoot him,” according to the court filing. “When Varinecz worked one of his arms free from Rhodes’ grip, Rhodes felt that he was losing control and decided to shoot Varinecz in his arm.”

As Trevor Varinecz continued to stab at Rhodes, the police officer worried “that if he went down, the student would have access to his gun,” the court filing states. “He decided that he had to shoot Varinecz to end the attack.”

An investigation showed Rhodes fired 10 shots from his .40 caliber Glock and Varinecz was struck five times – once in the left chest, once in his abdomen and three times in his extremities.

Contact DAVID WREN at 626-0281.

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