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.”