Victims of school pepper spray attack left to pay medical bills

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Parents are warned about the risk and cost of athletic injuries at school.

But what happens when something in the school environment makes a child sick? Who should pay the medical bills?

A Lawrence Township mother found out, after a pepper spray attack incident in a hallway left her family thousands of dollars in the hole.

Christina Rees was inside one of the ambulances that raced to the hospital from Lawrence Central High School back in January. She was one of 15 students overcome by a pepper spray attack orchestrated by a group of underclassmen in a school hallway.

A joke to them that forced an evacuation potentially life threatening for Christina, who suffers from asthma.

"All of a sudden, there's a misty substance above me and people are hacking," recalled Christina by phone from the University of Missouri, where she is now in her first year of college. "We were just trying to go to school. Just makes me angry."

Now, nine months after that blast of pepper spray, something else stinks about that day.

Christina's mother, Suzanne, is now stuck with $2,500 in healthcare bills.

"It was $1,200 for the ER," said Suzanne Rees, pointing to the bill totals charged to her.

$1,200 out of pocket after insurance for Christina's six-hour emergency room visit. Nearly a thousand dollars for the ambulance ride, plus doctors bills.

Suzanne Rees says a high school administrator told her to turn the bills over to the school district. She did, thinking Lawrence Township Schools would pay.

But then came the answer.

"It was a couple of weeks later that I got the denial letter from the insurance company," Rees said.

Lawrence Township's insurance company refused to pay even a portion of the bills. In a letter, Indiana Insurance said, "Our Investigation did not show any liability on our insured."

"I was stunned that there was no coverage for something out of the ordinary," said Rees, referring to the denial letter. "At each level, we were told that the insurance company had the final say. Even one email said 'We can't cover all 15,000 students in our district.'"

That email was from Superintendent Concetta Raimondi, who wrote, "I completely understand how upsetting it is for you...I wish the MSDLT had the resources to support costs such as these that our insurance carrier has denied, but we do is simply not feasible to do so for a student population that exceed 15,000."

Suzanne says she understands districts are strapped, but says the students injured were not involved in an extracurricular activity or acting carelessly in a classroom. They were simply trying to go to class.

To make matters worse, she and other families tell Eyewitness News they were never notified their students had been loaded onto ambulances and sent to the ER. It was one of Christina's friends who alerted the Rees family.

"We were not notified by the school personally." Rees told Eyewitness News.

She says a school-wide message went out on the phone saying there was an incident, but that it was under control.

No proper notification and now stuck with costly medical bills from an incident at school.

"Why do the people that follow the rules have to end up paying for these sorts of things?," Rees questioned.

She's paying and now warning other parents it could happen to them, too. Her concerns highlighted just over a week ago, following an IPS bus crash where small children were injured.

"They were put on ambulances and I thought, 'What about all of their parents? Who's covering those ambulance bills?'" she said.

Eight IPS students were transported to Riley Hospital in that September head-on crash. IPS spokesman John Althardt says IPS Insurance will pay for the ambulance transports for those students.

The business manager at Lawrence Township confirms two families did not receive notifications. Robin Phelps told Eyewitness News one student was 18 years old and considered an adult. Phelps said the district could not locate the second family and that medics determined the student needed medical attention. Phelps said if its insurance company had found it liable, the district would pay.