School Climate & Safety

After 8-Year-Old’s Suicide, Questions About a School’s Handling of Peer ‘Assault’

By Evie Blad — May 12, 2017 4 min read
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An 8-year-old Cincinnati boy died by suicide in January, two days after he fell to the floor in an elementary school bathroom after an incident police have called a possible assault. Now his mother, through an attorney, is questioning whether his school handled the situation properly.

The death of the student, Gabriel Taye, is part of a higher than usual number of youth suicides for the region, local media reports.

Cincinnati schools on Friday released choppy footage from a hallway security camera of the interaction, blurring out students’ faces to protect their privacy. “It is our firm position that the allegations portrayed in the media are not supported by the video,” the district said.

The district’s move followed a Thursday announcement by a county coroner that she would re-open the child’s death investigation to include a review of the video, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported:

Gabriel died by suicide Jan. 26 at home. Two days before in a Carson Elementary restroom, another student grabbed Gabriel and pulled him to the ground, which apparently knocked Gabriel out. Other students poked and touched Gabriel for as long as nearly five minutes until a school official appeared to care for the boy, according to a Cincinnati Police Department detective’s written account of what he saw on school surveillance video. Gabriel’s mother said through her lawyer, Jennifer Branch of Cincinnati, that no one at Carson told her about the assault when she collected Gabriel that day. In the evening, his mother took him to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center because he was vomiting. After a night in the emergency room, the mother brought him home and kept him out of school that day, Jan. 25. The next day, Gabriel went back to school.

He died later that night.

In documents obtained by the Inquirer, a Cincinnati Police homicide detective described the behavior on the video as “bullying and could even rise to the level of criminal assault,” if not for the ages of the students involved. The district contends the students’ actions are not as severe as they have been described.

I’ve embedded the eight-minute video below. It’s choppy because security cameras typically capture fewer frames per second than a cell phone camera. The interaction between Taye and his fellow student happens relatively quickly, at the beginning and the nature of it is not totally clear. The two boys appear to shake hands before Taye ends up on floor. Once he’s down, his face is obscured by a dividing wall at the entrance to the restroom, but boys can seen passing by his outstretched body, some poking at his legs. Later, several adults respond and, eventually, Taye walks out of the restroom with them.

Gabriel’s mother says the school contacted her to say her son had fainted, but it did not tell her about the peer incident, the Enquirer reports. She picked up her son and took him home but did not take him to the hospital until he reported feeling sick to his stomach later that day. Doctors diagnosed him with a stomach flu, unaware of the interaction he’d had earlier that day, Branch told the Inquirer.

“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 Cincinnati district said in a release about the video.

Here are some discussion points the incident raises:

Was it bullying? Or something else?

Some media reports have characterized the incident as bullying, but I would note that bullying is a very specific form of peer harassment that involves repeated malicious actions by a peer. The district told local media that it had no documented incidents of bullying during that time period to support claims that Taye had been targeted by his peers before. But experts say students don’t always report bullying.

What steps should schools take to protect students in bathrooms?

Student restrooms are often less supervised than hallways and classrooms because adults have their own staff facilities, meaning there’s less chance of incidental encounters that could dissuade students from engaging in fights and harassment. There have been several high-profile incidents in school restrooms in recent years. In 2016, a Delaware girl died after a fight in her high school restroom.

What kind of safety protocols should schools have to ensure bathrooms are properly monitored?

“Cincinnati Public Schools is reviewing with faculty and staff the procedures regarding adult supervision in the restrooms,” the district said in its statement. “We are committed to student safety and ensuring that all CPS schools foster a positive, learning environment.”

A higher rate of youth suicides

“The 8-year-old boy died Jan. 26, the first youth suicide in 2017 in Hamilton County,” the Enquirer reports. “Seven county residents 18 and younger have died as suicides this year. Last year, there were 13. The yearly average is about five.”

Suicide experts say youth suicides can cluster. One can create a contagion that leads to another. Experts sometimes intervene in these situations, working with educators to respond to mental health issues in schools and with local media about how to responsibly cover the issue.

You can read more about warning signs for suicide and materials for schools here.

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, you can find support by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or check out these resources from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Further reading on suicide:

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.