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Parents of student killed at Conniston in 1997 finally win claims bill

Ashraf Kamel’s 14-year-old son, Jean Pierre Kamel, was killed 21 years ago when a classmate shot him dead at Conniston Middle School in West Palm Beach.

Five years after their son’s death, Kamel and his ex-wife, Marguerite Dimitri, won a $1.6 million judgment against the Palm Beach County School Board in a lawsuit alleging negligence by district and school officials. But the school board paid only the $200,000 maximum that governments are allowed to pay in legal actions in Florida.

»RELATED: The latest in Florida political news

And almost every year since 2004, Kamel and Dimitri have gone to the Florida Legislature to seek passage of a special type of bill known as a claims bill that would allow the school district to pay at least some of the remainder of the judgment.

On Thursday, they finally won, when the Senate voted 34-1 to pass a House bill (HB 6523) approved by that chamber on a 112-3 vote on March 1. The legislation would award Kamel and Dimitri $180,000 each for a total of $360,000, the same balance they agreed to in a previous legislative session.

“It gives me a sense of a relief and it’s something that I can put behind me and move forward,” Kamel, owner of a West Palm Beach-based limousine service, told The Palm Beach Post Thursday.

The parents initially sought the full amount, but over the years saw the bills amended to $1.4 million and then $400,900. In 2012, they agreed to accept $360,000 in addition to the $200,000 originally paid, but state lawmakers again refused to approve the claim bill filed by then-Sen. Mandy Dawson, D-Fort Lauderdale, whose district included part of Palm Beach County.

This year, Kamel’s and Dimitri’s claims bill was filed by two legislators outside the county, Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, and Rep. Jake Raburn, R-Lithia.

Lance Block, one of Kamel’s attorneys who for years has assisted with filing claims bills, said Gibson’s and Raburn’s sponsorship as well as a House and Senate leadership “much more fair” to such legislation proved favorable.

“I think the stars finally lined up for them,” he said.

Additionally, a focus on bullying this year via a bill important to House Speaker Richard Corcoran may have helped turn the tide, Block said. That omnibus education bill (HB 7055), which passed both chambers, would create a special voucher for bullied students if signed by Gov. Rick Scott.

“That’s exactly what we had in this case,” Block said. “It’s important because it sends a message (schools) can’t ignore bullying. That didn’t happen here and that cost this child his life.

Seventh-grader Jean Pierre Kamel, who wore a prosthetic leg because he was born without a tibia, was shot to death by classmate Tronneal Mangum, then 14, on Jan. 28, 1997 outside Conniston Middle shortly before school started that Monday morning.

At the time it was described as a dispute over a wristwatch. Kamel said in an interview Thursday that Jean Pierre had complained to administrators that Mangum had bullied him, “but nothing was done.”

In 1998, Mangum was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison, at the time the youngest person to be sentenced to life in prison in Palm Beach County.

But in 2016, a Palm Beach County judge reduced that term to 40 years in prison following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in 2012 that juveniles couldn’t be sentenced to life without parole even for murder.

Claiming that school officials could have done more to protect their son, Kamel and Dimitri sought a claims bill every year until the last several, when the political climate appeared just too hostile. For two consecutive years in 2013 and 2014, Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, refused to allow any claims bills through the upper chamber on the principle he was opposed to them.

But this year, they returned to the Capitol in hopes of a different outcome, and Kamel told The Post a month ago he was confident this was the year the bill would pass.

The bill’s passage, however, was bittersweet, Kamel said Thursday.

“(The money is) just going to release a little anger,” he said. “That money is not going to bring my son back.”

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