Judge approves settlement in Carolina Forest High School student’s death

dwren@thesunnews.comJanuary 2, 2013 

— A state judge has approved a settlement agreement in which Horry County’s police department and school district, and the S.C. Department of Education will pay a combined $175,000 to the family of a Carolina Forest High School student who was shot and killed by a school resource officer in 2009, according to court documents filed last week.

The settlement brings an end to a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of Trevor Varinecz, the 16-year-old student who was shot after he attacked resource officer Marcus Rhodes with a bayonet.

The money – half for a wrongful death claim and the other half for the parents’ pain and suffering claim – will come from the S.C. Insurance Reserve Fund, a state agency that provides insurance to governmental entities. Although police and school officials agreed to the settlement, they are not admitting any wrongdoing, according to court documents.

Rhodes was dismissed from the lawsuit days before a settlement was reached in November. That dismissal means Rhodes will not be held personally liable for any payment to the Varinecz family. The November settlement agreement was formally submitted to the court on Dec. 21 and was approved one week later.

Rhodes suffered superficial injuries when he was stabbed seven times by Varinecz on Oct. 16, 2009, court documents show. Rhodes has said he tried to wrest the bayonet from the student before shooting him.

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 Varinecz was depressed and initiated a confrontation with Rhodes “in an attempt to perpetrate ‘suicide by cop’.”

Ed Bell, a Georgetown lawyer representing the parents, said 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.

The parents, 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 told The Sun News when the settlement was announced last month. “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.

Court documents filed in November detail 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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