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:


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.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Stronger Together: Integrating Social and Emotional Supports in an Equity-Based MTSS
Decades of research have shown that when schools implement evidence-based social and emotional supports and programming, academic achievement increases. The impact of these supports – particularly for students of color, students from low-income communities, English
Content provided by Illuminate Education
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.
Student Well-Being Webinar
A Whole Child Approach to Supporting Positive Student Behavior 
To improve student behavior, it’s important to look at the root causes. Social-emotional learning may play a preventative role.

A whole child approach can proactively support positive student behaviors.

Join this webinar to learn how.
Content provided by Panorama
Recruitment & Retention Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Why Retaining Education Leaders of Color Is Key for Student Success
Today, in the United States roughly 53 percent of our public school students are young people of color, while approximately 80 percent of the educators who lead their classrooms, schools, and districts are white. Racial

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 Supreme Court Blocks Biden Vaccine Mandate Applying to Schools in Much of the Country
The justices ruled 6-3 to stay an Occupational Health and Safety Administration rule that covered schools in 26 states and two territories.
4 min read
Members of the Supreme Court pose for a group photo last April.
The U.S. Supreme Court blocked a federal vaccine mandate for large employers, including school districts in about half the states.
Erin Schaff/The New York Times via AP
Law & Courts Students Lose Appeal on Right to Civics Education, But Win Praise From Judges Anyway
A federal appellate court panel commended Rhode Island students for the novel effort, but said Supreme Court precedent stood in the way.
3 min read
Scales of justice and Gavel on wooden table and Lawyer or Judge working with agreement in Courtroom, Justice and Law concept.
Pattanaphong Khuankaew/iStock
Law & Courts High Court Appears Skeptical of Vaccine Mandate Covering Schools in Over Half the States
The Biden administration's OSHA rule applies to private employers with 100 or more workers, as well as school districts in 26 states.
4 min read
The Supreme Court shown Friday, Jan. 7, 2022, in Washington. The Supreme Court is taking up two major Biden administration efforts to bump up the nation's vaccination rate against COVID-19 at a time of spiking coronavirus cases because of the omicron variant.
The U.S. Supreme Court is weighing two Biden administration efforts to bump up the nation's vaccination rate against COVID-19.
Evan Vucci/AP
Law & Courts Federal Judge Blocks Biden's COVID Vaccine Mandate for Head Start Teachers
In a challenge by 24 states, the judge's preliminary injunction also blocks a mask mandate for Head Start students age 2 or older.
4 min read
COVID face masks and gavel
iStock/Getty Images Plus