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The Journal Gazette

  • Taye

Sunday, August 13, 2017 1:00 am

Lawsuit to test schools' bullying liability

Associated Press

CINCINNATI – The parents of an 8-year-old Ohio boy who hanged himself from his bunk bed with a necktie want school officials held responsible, 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 that school officials knew about the bullying but were “deliberately indifferent,” allowing a “treacherous school environment.”

Knowledge of harassment and failure to do something are among elements set out in a 1999 U.S. Supreme Court ruling for school liability cases.

“The deliberate indifference standard set forth (by the Supreme Court) sets a high bar for plaintiffs,” a 2016 opinion by a three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals says. “It requires only that school administrators respond to known peer harassment in a manner that is not 'clearly unreasonable in light of the known circumstances.'”

The ruling rejected an appeal by a Tennessee family that sued a school district over two years of alleged relentless bullying that forced their son to change schools.

Cincinnati school officials have said that the day Gabriel's parents say he was knocked unconscious at a school bathroom, the boy told staffers he fainted. They say he never said he was bullied or assaulted. He killed himself two days later, on Jan. 26.

Legal experts say such lawsuits are seemingly becoming more common amid increasing public awareness campaigns on youth bullying. A 2015 federal survey estimated 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 that bullying increases the risk of suicidal behavior but that most cases don't result in suicide, suicide attempts or thoughts of suicide.

Courts have shown a 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.

The federal cases often take years to resolve, unless the two sides reach a settlement. A wrongful death lawsuit filed by parents of a 14-year-old Missouri boy who killed himself in 2013 after being bullied was settled for $300,000 two years ago. This year, a Mississippi school district settled for undisclosed terms a lawsuit by parents of a seventh-grader who died of injuries from alleged bullying.

A 2015 lawsuit filed against nearby Fairfield City Schools in Ohio and officials by the parents of a girl who fatally shot herself after being bullied repeatedly, which included frequent racial and sexual insults, is scheduled for federal trial in Cincinnati in early 2018.

Plaintiffs in such cases have often said that among their reasons for going to court is the hope it will bring changes that will protect other students from bullying.

“We want to open a Pandora's box, we want to push against the hornet's nest,” said Bruce Nagel, attorney for the family of Mallory Grossman, a 12-year-old New Jersey girl who killed herself in June, allegedly after months of bullying by classmates. “We want to end this forever.”

Mallory's family has said they plan to sue her school district.