CINCINNATI (AP) – The parents of an 8-year-old Ohio boy who hanged himself from his bunk bed with a necktie are testing the issue of school liability in suicides blamed on bullying.
The wrongful death lawsuit filed by the parents of Gabriel Taye against Cincinnati Public Schools and school officials cites repeated examples of Gabriel and others being bullied at his elementary school. They contend school officials knew about the bullying but played it down, allowing what they call a “treacherous school environment.”
Courts have been reluctant to second-guess school administrators, even as bullying among children remains a common problem. Federal authorities have said that while bullying increases the risk of suicidal behavior, most cases don’t result in suicide or thoughts of suicide.
The lawsuit seeks damages to be determined in a trial.
Attorneys have said his mother didn’t know her son was bullied until the lawyers saw a Cincinnati police detective’s email describing the scene outside a boys’ bathroom where attorneys say Gabriel was knocked unconscious. He hanged himself at home two days later on Jan. 26.
Attorney Jennifer Branch said Cornelia Reynolds’ words were “if I had only known” after Branch described the bathroom assault to the devastated mother. She said the parents also learned after his death that he, and other children, had been bullied before at Carson Elementary School.
Prosecutors recently closed their investigation into Gabriel’s death without charging anyone. The coroner last month stood by her original finding of suicide in a review after authorities opened Gabriel’s grave in June to remove an electronic tablet buried with him to see if it might provide additional information. His mother had said she buried the tablet with him to make sure he’d have something to “play with in heaven.”
The school district has said Gabriel told staff he fainted and never said he was bullied or assaulted. The district said Monday in a statement that it had no comment on the lawsuit other than to repeat its earlier statement lamenting the “tragic death” of an “outstanding young man.”
The district earlier this year released copies of a choppy 24-minute video that shows one boy bullying other students. The mother’s attorneys say he pushed Gabriel into a wall, knocking him unconscious for at least seven minutes.
Their lawsuit says Gabriel wasn’t known as a “cool kid” to his peers, but he was “a good kid who wanted to be friends with people: he was smart, wanted to learned, earned good grades, avoided fights and arguments, and loved to dress up for school, including wearing neck ties.” The lawsuit states that his grades had been going down in third grade, but that his parents knew of no reason to believe he was suicidal.
Legal experts say such lawsuits seem to be coming more common amid increasing public awareness campaigns on youth bullying. A 2015 federal survey estimated that about 21 percent of U.S. students, ages 12-18, said they had been bullied.
Federal authorities say they are still learning about the links between school bullying and suicide , saying bullying increases the risk of suicidal behavior but that the majority of bullying cases don’t result in suicide, suicide attempts, or thoughts of suicide.
Courts have shown reluctance to increase the demands on school officials to quell bullying. The Supreme Court has urged courts against second-guessing school administrators’ disciplinary decisions, to allow them flexibility they need to deal with children who are still learning how to interact appropriately.
© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.