Some justice at last, for space-loving teen podcaster paralyzed by bullies


Photo : an iPhone snap I took of Sawyer (L) with space journalist Miles O'Brien (center) and astronaut Leroy Chiao (R) during the STS-135 SpaceFlightNow live launch webcast. This shot was taken minutes before the shuttle took off from launchpad 39A.


One of the bright spots in attending NASA shuttle launches last year with Miles O'Brien and the SpaceFlightNow webcasters was meeting a teen space enthusiast named Sawyer Rosenstein (web/Twitter). The 18-year old runs an awesome space podcast, does space education work with children, advocates for science and space awareness, and lots of other cool stuff. We invited him to write a guest feature for Boing Boing, and it is one of my favorite guest posts ever.

Sawyer is physically disabled, as a result of a brutal bullying incident at age 12 that followed many other bullying incidents in school—he reached out to administrators for help early on, and got none.

Today, 6 years after the sucker punch that permanently changed his body, Sawyer received some justice. A $4.2 million settlement with the school district governing the middle school where the attack took place. His family also reached a private settlement with the attacker's family.

That money won't erase the physical challenges. It won't undo the suffering he has endured. It won't make the countless surgeries he's gone through, and may yet again, go away. It won't ensure that the kid who bullied him doesn't harm someone again (the bully received only a few day's suspension after the attack). But as someone who is now personally aware of how much it costs to need ongoing medical care in America, I think it's great that medical bills will at least be less of a problem in his life, even if not fully covered.

The first thing I noticed when I met Sawyer right outside the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center at dawn, the day of the Shuttle's last journey to space, was his bright, enthusiastic, glowing energy. Man, that smile. The joy evident because he was right there at the space temple with all the rest of us. We were all smiling. Happy to be witnessing an amazing feat of human engineering, and happy to be gathered on an amazing day in history.

The first thing I noticed was not the fact that he uses a wheelchair, and had to struggle to navigate the disabled-unfriendly terrain in the press area, and the disabled-unfriendly attitudes of some of the people there. Sawyer's life isn't focused on the thing he survived. It's pretty much focused on the stars. And that's a great place to aim. He's a strong, smart, rare human being. He inspires me.

I'm so glad to read this news today. Godspeed, Sawyer. You rule.

Coverage of the settlement: Reuters, North Jersey News, MSNBC, CBS, SF Gate.

Read Sawyer's special feature on Boing Boing: "Footprints on the Moon."


Photos: the final Space Shuttle launch, STS-135, taking off from Kennedy Space Center. Shot by Joel Rosenstein, Sawyer's dad. Below, the podcast team "puts their hands together to show unity and harmony between the team of Talking Space," photo by Dr. Lucy Rogers.




  1. I am not sure that $4.2 million will necessarily cover his lifetime medical costs. Such a shame. But apparently he got some money from his attacker, too.

  2. ” I think it’s great that Sawyer will probably not have to worry about paying medical bills for the rest of his life.”

    4 million dollars? When it comes to medical bills that’s peanuts. He can go through that easily in a few years depending on treatment.

      1. Do you really think that countries just let people in? He’d probably be denied citizenship and benefits in any country to which he tried to relocate.

        1. I have to echo HubrisSonic here. It may take some work to get into Canada — maybe not, though. A few years living here to get citizenship. But denied health care? It just doesn’t happen. If you’re a resident you get health care. If he came here as a student on a visa, he’d get health care (with the added bonus of much cheaper tuition).

          And I do acknowledge completely that it would suck that he would have to do this if he didn’t want to, leaving his home and family.

          1. Europe and Canada both take measures to discourage immigration from applicants who might be moving expressly for the health care. 

      2.  I doubt any country would welcome someone who is trying to enter for the sole purpose of getting expensive health care.  They have enough trouble taking care of their own citizens.

        Better off trying to improve the situation here in the US instead.

        1. Plus, he might actually LIKE the US, being a fan of NASA and having friends and family here and all.


  3. This story is tragic, and I can’t imagine what Sawyer went through, but I sincerely hope the district appeals and gets this judgment reversed. The school is only responsible for foreseeable consequences and no one could have foreseen such a rare complication to a rather ordinary incident. I commend Sawyer’s courage, but the school is not responsible for this accident; no one is.

    1. This was not an accident, it was an assault.  This was an assault that he tried to stop before it ever happened by going to his school faculty for help.

      1.  It’s all well and good that he was awarded that settlement.

        It would be better still if the school faculty who ignored him were all fired. 

    2. The problem, of course, is that the helpless taxpayers are ending up paying for the fiasco, and not the personal administrators responsible.

      In a sane world, the individuals responsible should pay directly for the results of their actions. The defendants should be the administrators and families of the bullies. 
      If the school offers to cover the liabilities of the employees, that should be written directly into their contracts and considered a type of benefit, ’employer provided lawsuit insurance.’

      Two wrongs don’t make a right; forcing taxpayers to pay for the inept administration is not an ideal solution.

      1.  Well, thing is that when it comes to shit like this, it seems the only way to even hope for these people to do their godamn jobs is for it to cost so much that they are harassed by their superiors into not being assholes. what would have REALLY made a difference would have been if a chunk of the money had been taken out of the pensions of the administrators who didn’t do what they were suppossed to do.

      2. “The poor performance of school administrators is costing us a lot of money!”

        “We should work to change that situation so we aren’t wasting our resources.”

        “What if we just don’t pay?”

      3. I hope the attacker got more than just a monetary punishment.  The bulk of the punishment should land on the person who actually threw the punch.  Too often people act as if the attacker was some force of nature that isn’t responsible for themselves and others were.

      4. The school has insurance which pays the settlement. Granted, taxes pay for the policy, but it’s not as if the bill is forwarded directly to Johnny and Jane Q. Public.

        Hyperbole is a hell of a drug.

    3. one is responsible? How about the person who punched him and paralyzed him. You’re not serious are you? As far as the taxpayers having to foot the bill. Too bad. If you have an administration in your community that behaves poorly and does nothing, I can only imagine what else they do, or fail to do. I know where I live if we had bullying cases this serious it would be dealt with, immediately. This is a problem where we are all responsible – for ourselves, our kids and the people we entrust to make sure there is a safe learning environment.

      1. “As far as the taxpayers having to foot the bill. Too bad.”

        Yah, screw the elderly person on a fixed income and another family of a paralyzed kid, etc,  they can afford it.

        1. *facepalm* You are aware that taxes aren’t just rounded up in cash and thrown into a giant vault where people line up to collect their wads of entitlement money, right? Here in the real world, we have all these complicated bells and whistles like ‘accounting’ and ‘insurance’ and ‘dedicated lines of funding.’

  4. I agree Mitchell.  My father was disabled by an accident at 12, I know first hand the costs this young guy will look forward to.  Wheel chairs cost as much as a small home, and wheelchair equipped vans aren’t much cheaper.  Hopefully he will get some sound financial advice and invest it wisely.
      My father worked at Kennedy Space Center (was the handicapped employee of the year more than once) and had the same passion for space that this young man does.   I don’t know how to put this without offending someone, but I will say it anyways…  The type of people (space nerds…) that will surround this guy as he goes through the challenges he will face in his life  are just about the most wonderful people you could hope for.  My father never had a need or wish unfulfilled by his friends and colleagues at NASA/KSC.  Godspeed indeed! 

  5. I have seen victims of school bullying grow up to become awesome and successful adults, and my heart warms to see strong survivors. Regardless of the financial result and the legal justice involved, I think it’s waaay cool that this guy gets to hang out with cool space guys and is recognised as an important contributor and educator. Plus, I’ll bet, that he’s gonna buy himself a freakin’ sweet telescope. And so he should!

  6. Xeni I have loved the spirit and fun you bring here since my first read years ago. You have an eye for kids and young people of all flavors, the kinda kids that will change the world and bring smiles as they go along. Thank you and all the young Sawyers that you introduce here. Makes an old man happy to see such vitality.

  7. I hate to use allegory,  but I see Sawyer Rosenstein representing the fate of reason, truth, beauty, etc in the US…

    His tragedy is a microcosm of a place where using your mind can get you crippled.

    Is it too late for space nerds and their brethren to band together and work effectively against the brutal stupidity machine of the elite?

  8. I’ve attended birthday parties at the Challenger Center where Sawyer works (volunteers?), and I’m surprised to find he’s only 18. He’s so poised and knowledgeable, funny and sweet. I wish him the best!

    1. That’s awesome that you got to meet him. He sounds like a young man truly wiser beyond his years. :)

  9. Having gone through some similar stuff myself (the consequences were nowhere near as bad). “Reaching out to administrators” seldom works. Had a 6th grade Reading teacher who routinely berated and beat me,literally kicked me across the room more than once in front of more than 30 of my class mates. School officials had no response, and my parents (distracted by my troublesome older brother) never put much stock in my complaints. I was pretty much saved by a school counselor (George) who found every fucking excuse he could to get me out of that class.

    12 years later the teacher in question dies and gets a scholarship, issue of the local newspaper, and gala dinner in his honor. 

    George died of a heart attack a few years later. He got a 3 paragraph obituary. I found out 2 years after the fact after running into a friend of his daughter.

    Some of the same people who watched this happen are today the “administrators” of the school, the members of the school board, and members of the town council. The teacher in question is something of a sacred  name, the model all teachers should aspire to. And George, a man who protected and helped myself and hundreds like me? I’m pretty sure they remember him as some guy who threw decent barbecues.

    1.  Everybody who has ever been involved in American school systems for any length of time knows that there are 5-10% of teachers who are total wastes of oxygen if not downright malicious.

      How do we get them the fuck out??  Those of you who are strong supporters of teachers’ unions are especially invited to contribute suggestions.

      1. It varies from Union to union on a State by State level, however there are many teacher’s unions where tenured teachers CAN be fired for cause. In Illinois the process takes about 30-60 days (so that the teacher can have a hearing and try to defend themselves). People in other places aren’t as lucky.

      2. There’s absolutely no logical reason that being a union member should make a horrible employee impossible to fire.

  10. I went looking for home-town news coverage, figuring it would have more details than the wire service accounts, and I was right:

    For one thing, it clarified the actual cause of the injury; the sentence in the BoingBoing article (at least as of right now) makes no sense. Not that the actual injury matters, but I was confused.

    Also, to contradict someone’s guessing above, no, the taxpayers aren’t on the hook for this, the school has lawsuit insurance. But that, frankly, may be part of the problem. There’s ample testimony and paper trail that Rosenstein documented his earlier injuries and provided eyewitness testimony. The school never denied that the attacks were taking place. Instead, they called him a complainer, a whiner, for not accepting it.

    And despite this lawsuit, two other parents came forward in the comments at the end of the article and said that they, too, have kids in the same school who are currently being bullied, and that one of them has provided the school with screencaps of threats of violence. Guess how the school is responding? If you guessed “picking on the victim” and “sticking up for the bullies,” you win a prize.

    The school officials won’t pay out of their pockets, so why do they care? The bullies tend to be more popular and more numerous than the victims, so if they seriously went after bullies, they’d have problems from more parents than they get from the victims’ parents now. Going after bullies is, for them, a losing proposition: it makes their job harder, it makes large numbers of enemies among the bullies’ parents, it could impair their careers, and it wouldn’t save them personally a dime if they risked all that to stand up for kids that, I’d bet money, they don’t like any better than the bullies do.

    The taxpayers may pay out in slightly higher lawsuit insurance payments. Maybe. Or, more likely, the insurer will conclude that successful suits are still going to be rare and were already factored in. But since the taxpayers aren’t on the hook for it, are they going to vote the school board out for not doing more? You wish. Why would they?

  11. US$4,2 million dollars from the school district. All those books which won’t get bought, all those programs which won’t be implemented and all the equipment which won’t be purchased. And all because the school brass simply tossed a vulnerable, sensitive kid to the wolves, just like school administrators have always done.

    I believe as Frank Zappa once observed that there’s a deliberate search-and-destroy mission going on in our public school systems, against smart, sensitive people who might not necessarily make good conformists. The bullies (for which read thugs-in-training) are merely the agents of this mission. (Kimmo is right).

    1.  Read the attached article. No school district funds are being used. There is insurance to cover this sort of payout caused by that level of faculty incompetence and negligence.

  12. Hang on. OVER FOUR MILLION DOLLARS is not enough to cover his medical bills? O_OI. Guh. Buh. kqjfmldsf. WTF, United States?

    1. 1/3 to the lawyers, 1/3 for taxes leaves $1.4 million.  If he lives 70 years, which he might, that’s $20K per year.  My insurance premiums alone are over $7K per year.

      1. That makes sense. I didn’t realise that so much money went to lawyers in that kind of settlement. (I’d argue that you’re not taking the bank interests into account, if he doesn’t spend it all in one go, and they might amount to quite a bit… but that would make the calculations really complex, and besides, I don’t think that’s really the point.) 

        It just seems really strange to me. My country’s own health care program is far from being perfect (I live in France), but I doubt you’d have to spend that much on medical bills, even over a long time. It’s nigh impossible for me to imagine such a screwed-up health care system. It just makes no sense to me. I’m so sorry.

        1.  We (in the US), are sorry about our strange health care system too.  Most people using it barely understand it, it’s completely understandable that it’s incomprehensible from the outside world. 

          1.  Nick, making $250,000 makes you part of the 1%. Neither makes you part of the .01% who control the majority of the wealth held within the 1% though.

          2. Depends if we’re talking about wealth or income. Income, yes, top 0.2% or so. Wealth – about the top 6%.

            Even $7.5M assets won’t get you into the top 1%.

            ( p.46, 2007, corrected for inflation. Income statistics IRS 2008. Percentages are of tax returns and households, respectively.)

        1.  It’s complicated. See: for a quick run down on the basic rules.  Nearly everything other than compensatory damages for personal physical injury or physical sickness is taxable, including awards for lost wages. A specialist in this particular area of tax law is highly recommended.

          I believe the rates on the taxable part may also be reduced through a structured settlement where part of the money is paid out over time rather than as a lump sum.

          1.  I stand by my statement. As he was 12 when this happened, there isn’t much in the way of lost wages ;) especially since when is working and going to school now.

            It really isn’t all that complicated. There is a short list of items to look for that ARE taxable.

  13. Dear Mr. Sawyer I think this is great you are speaking out I am a Grandmother now but I do remember so much bullying in Elementary School, I was not one of those students involved but I would feel so sorry for the one’s being pushed around I still think of this one girl who was beaten up everyday &  wounder what ever happened to her.  I hope you help others to speak out when they are beaten up by the bullies, Thank you- Milwaukee WI

  14. If a school official ever declined to deal with a bullying situation regarding my child, I don’t think I’d be able to restrain myself.  I’d be making damned certain that official was replaced next year.

    If a parent declined to try to rein their kid in?  I can seriously see myself trying to bully them in as legal a manner as possible, until they truly grok it.

  15. American health care is Bullying Personified. How is refusing to provide essential care for those who are in dire need  – unless they pay up NOW- any different from bullying?
    And then, as exemplified by the above comments,  Americans often skirt the issue and waste energy discussing semantics and red herrings. Aligned energies might focus with greater intensity on the issue at hand and  effect real change. But change is next to impossible to achieve when good energy gets scattered, wasted. i see it everywhere I look. It is called Bait and Switch and it used to be  the right that did it to you. Now you do it yourselves. 

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