Law & Courts

Federal Appeals Court Lets Lawsuit Proceed Against Educators in Student’s Suicide

By Mark Walsh — December 30, 2020 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

A federal appeals court has allowed a wrongful death lawsuit brought by the parents of an 8-year-old Cincinnati boy who committed suicide after alleged severe bullying at school to proceed against two school administrators.

A unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, rejected a request by the former principal and assistant principal to throw out state-law claims that they acted recklessly in handling persistent bullying of Carson Elementary School student Gabriel Taye and allegedly failing to inform his parents about several incidents.

Taye hung himself with a necktie in his bedroom on Jan. 26, 2017, two days after a student had knocked him unconscious in a school bathroom in the most serious of a pattern of bullying incidents.

The lawsuit by the parents, Cornelia Reynolds and Benyam Tate, alleges that then-Principal Ruthenia Jackson and then-Assistant Principal Jeffrey McKenzie did not tell Taye’s mother that a student had attacked him in the school bathroom. The suit also alleges that McKenzie stood over Taye but did not aid him or call 911, as district policy required when a student was unconscious for longer than a minute.

A school nurse called Taye’s mother and said he had fainted, court papers say. Taye stayed home from school the next day, then was bullied again in the school bathroom when he returned the following day, the same day he committed suicide.

The 6th Circuit court, in its Dec. 29 decision in Meyers v. Cincinnati Board of Education, said the parents have sufficiently alleged that Jackson and McKenzie “failed to call 911 when Taye was unconscious for seven minutes after being knocked to the floor in the bathroom.”

“They reported false information about the number of ‘bullying instances’ that occurred as required by Ohio law, and ultimately, prevented Taye’s parents from fully understanding Taye’s horrifying experience at Carson Elementary until it was too late,” the 6th Circuit panel added. “This court finds their behavior, as alleged, to be egregious and clearly reckless, thus barring them from the shield of government immunity.”

Federal and State Claims

Taye’s parents, as well as the boy’s estate, sued the Cincinnati school system along with some other individual defendants on federal civil-rights claims as well as state torts such as wrongful death, intentional infliction of serious emotional distress, and others.

Jackson and McKenzie sought to have the suit dismissed on the basis of state governmental immunity. In court papers, the two administrators deny that there was bullying at Carson Elementary and that Taye’s suicide was not forseeable.

A federal district court rejected their motion to dismiss. The Cincinnati Board of Education and other defendants have raised similar defenses to the lawsuit’s federal claims, but those were not at issue in this appeal.

The 6th Circuit’s opinion describes in detail the pattern of bullying faced by Taye since he was in 1st grade and the alleged failures by school administrators to respond adequately or keep his parents informed.

The administrators “could have asked teachers to supervise the student bathrooms or limited the number of students allowed to use the bathroom at one time,” the court said. “Instead, Jackson and McKenzie allowed the boys’ bathroom to remain unsupervised. Jackson and McKenzie’s behavior shows their failure to take this situation seriously and exemplifies the very definition of recklessness: they consciously disregarded the known or obvious risk of harm that students would engage in violent behavior in the unsupervised bathroom, and that disregard was unreasonable in light of the attack that took place there.”

As to the administrators’ argument that Taye’s suicide was not foreseeable, the 6th Circuit panel said that assertion was undercut by a 2017 decision of their court. In that decision, Tumminello v. Father Ryan High School, a different 6th Circuit panel had written that “if a school is aware of a student being bullied but does nothing to prevent the bullying, it is reasonably foreseeable that the victim of the bullying might resort to self-harm, even suicide.”

In Taye’s case, the 6th Circuit said Jackson and McKenzie “knew the full extent to which Taye was subjected to aggression and violence by his classmates. … [T]hey knew Taye was harassed and bullied at school and that a risk of bullying is suicide, and yet they utterly failed to take reasonable steps to protect Taye from that risk.”

Related Tags:

Events

School & District Management K-12 Essentials Forum Principals, Lead Stronger in the New School Year
Join this free virtual event for a deep dive on the skills and motivation you need to put your best foot forward in the new year.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Privacy & Security Webinar
Navigating Modern Data Protection & Privacy in Education
Explore the modern landscape of data loss prevention in education and learn actionable strategies to protect sensitive data.
Content provided by  Symantec & Carahsoft
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Attend to the Whole Child: Non-Academic Factors within MTSS
Learn strategies for proactively identifying and addressing non-academic barriers to student success within an MTSS framework.
Content provided by Renaissance

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Law & Courts Posting Ten Commandments in Schools Was Struck Down in 1980. Could That Change?
In 1980, the justices invalidated a Kentucky law, similar to the new Louisiana measure, requiring classroom displays of the Decalogue.
13 min read
Louisiana Gov. Jeff Landry signs bills related to his education plan on June 19, 2024, at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic School in Lafayette, La. Louisiana has become the first state to require that the Ten Commandments be displayed in every public school classroom, the latest move from a GOP-dominated Legislature pushing a conservative agenda under a new governor.
Louisiana Gov. Jeff Landry, a Republican, signs bills related to his education plan on June 19, 2024, at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic School in Lafayette, La. One of those new laws requires that the Ten Commandments be displayed in every public school classroom, but the law is similar to one from Kentucky that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down in 1980.
Brad Bowie/The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate via AP
Law & Courts Biden's Title IX Rule Is Now Blocked in 14 States
A judge in Kansas issued the third injunction against the Biden administration's rule granting protections to LGBTQ+ students.
4 min read
Kansas high school students, family members and advocates rally for transgender rights, Jan. 31, 2024, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. On Tuesday, July 2, a federal judge in Kansas blocked a federal rule expanding anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ students from being enforced in four states, including Kansas and a patchwork of places elsewhere across the nation.
Kansas high school students, family members and advocates rally for transgender rights, Jan. 31, 2024, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. On Tuesday, July 2, a federal judge in Kansas blocked a federal rule expanding anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ students from being enforced in four states, including Kansas, and a patchwork of places elsewhere across the nation.
John Hanna/AP
Law & Courts Student Says Snapchat Enabled Teacher's Abuse. Supreme Court Won't Hear His Case
The high court, over a dissent by two justices, decline to review the scope of Section 230 liability protection for social media platforms.
4 min read
The United States Supreme Court is seen in Washington, D.C., on July 1, 2024.
The U.S. Supreme Court is seen in Washington, D.C., on July 1, 2024. The high court declined on July 2 to take up a case about whether Snapchat could be held partially liable for a teacher's sexual abuse of a student.
Aashish Kiphayet/NurPhoto via AP
Law & Courts What the Supreme Court's Chevron Decision Could Mean for Biden's Title IX Rule
The decision overrules a 40-year-old precedent and could impact lawsuits challenging the final Title IX rule.
5 min read
Visitors pose for photographs at the U.S. Supreme Court on June 18, 2024, in Washington.
Visitors pose for photographs at the U.S. Supreme Court on June 18, 2024, in Washington. The high court on June 28 overruled a longtime precedent and held that courts, not federal agencies, have the primary authority to interpret ambiguous federal statutes.
Jose Luis Magana/AP