CINCINNATI — The parents of an 8-year-old Ohio boy sued his school district for his wrongful death, accusing the system Monday of allowing the school to decay into a place so terrorized by bullies that the third grader died by suicide Jan. 26. The suicide came two days after the boy was assaulted and left unconscious on a restroom floor.
The suit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati, also accuses Cincinnati Public Schools of covering up bullying at Carson Elementary School — not just the repeated instances against Gabriel Taye but also at least 14 other instances just in the last school year. The suit claims the school district may have destroyed security-camera recordings to shield itself from legal action.
Cincinnati Public Schools, the lawsuit said, “with utter reckless wanton disregard for Gabe, permitted a treacherous school environment to become even more so by withholding these critical facts and covering up the risk to Gabe’s safety.”
Named in the suit, which seeks unspecified damages, are the school system; Mary Ronan, who just retired as Cincinnati Public Schools superintendent; and Carson's leaders at the time of the bullying, Ruthenia Jackson, the principal, and Jeffrey McKenzie, the assistant principal. Jackson and McKenzie have since left Carson Elementary.
Dawn Grady, spokeswoman for the school district, released a statement Monday in response to the complaint filed by Cornelia Reynolds and Benyam Taye of Cincinnati: "As we have stated previously pertaining to Gabriel's passing, 'Our hearts are broken by the loss of this child, and our thoughts are with his parents and extended family. He was an outstanding young man, and this is a great loss for his family and our school community.' "
The statement said the school district would no longer comment on the matter now that litigation has begun.
In an interview with WKRC-TV that aired Monday, Reynolds said: "He would have stayed home with me, maybe homeschooled, or transferred to a different school, if I had known that he was going through what he was going through at Carson. It could have been prevented."
Cincinnati lawyer Jennifer Branch, representing Gabriel's parents, said the TV interview would be their only public statement.
Gabriel’s death came amid an outbreak of youth suicide in the region as measured by the Hamilton County, Ohio, coroner’s office. For close to 20 years, the average number of suicide deaths by people 18 and younger was five. In 2016, there were 13. So far in 2017, there have been 10 — the county’s first consecutive double-digit annual tally.
Local mental-health officials have said they do not know the reasons behind the increase in suicide deaths, although bullying, in school and over the Internet, is a risk factor for mental health issues.
The courts are seeing more lawsuits from parents over school bullying. Such cases, though, are hard for parents of the bullied to win, since they must prove that the school district had actual notice of harm to the child and was deliberately indifferent to threats of such harm.
The lawsuit filed on behalf of Gabriel Taye’s parents outlines an inventory of at least 14 instances of violence at Carson either from other parents or directly from the school's “behavior logs” — bullies throwing chairs and pushing, choking and threatening other students in the 2016-17 school year. Yet the school’s official report of bullying for the first half of that school year lists only four incidents.
The suit also says Carson Elementary is suffering academically because of the school’s violent atmosphere. But parents, the lawsuit said, were not informed about the extent of Carson’s problems. If Gabriel’s parents had known that he was under threat, the suit says, they would have moved him to another school. Bullying injuries at Carson were routinely downplayed and minimized, the lawsuit said.
Gabriel’s parents say in the lawsuit they learned only after his death that throughout his third-grade year, Gabriel had been bullied, including three instances in early January alone. The lawsuit said the school system apparently does not have any security-camera videos of those events, though it has 31 cameras installed at Carson, and the suit accuses the district of destroying the evidence.
The lawsuit said "all surveillance recordings involving Gabe has been destroyed except for Exhibit A."
Exhibit A is the Jan. 24 Carson security-camera video showing what the lawsuit says is a student’s assault on Gabriel in a restroom, which Cincinnati Public Schools released publicly in May. A Cincinnati homicide detective who reviewed the video a week after Gabriel’s death said the incident bordered on criminal assault. The video shows Gabriel offering to shake hands, but the other student instead grabs Gabriel and pulls him to the ground.
In May, Ronan publicly disputed the conclusion that the video showed a bully assaulting Gabriel, and she insisted he had merely fainted.
According to the time stamp on the video, however, Gabriel lost consciousness for at least seven minutes until school officials finally arrived, roused him and walked him to the nurse’s office.
Gabriel’s mother said when the nurse, Margaret McLaughlin, called her to fetch Gabriel, the nurse only said Gabriel had fainted. Reynolds took her son home, but he complained of stomach pains. At Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, he was observed overnight and released as a case of flu. Exhausted, he stayed home Jan. 25 but went to school Jan. 26. That evening, he hung himself.
“This complete failure to respond to the known pattern of aggressive behavior Gabe experienced at Carson, along with defendants Jackson’s and McKenzie’s failure to respond to the bathroom attack, constituted deliberate indifference to Gabe’s safety at Carson and to his ability to learn," the lawsuit said.
Follow Anne Saker on Twitter: @apsaker