Parents sue CPS, blame school bullying for 8-year-old's suicide

Gabriel Taye's family sues school
Published: Aug. 7, 2017 at 4:10 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 8, 2017 at 8:39 AM EDT
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CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - Anne Saker

Gabriel Taye's parents sued Cincinnati Public Schools for his wrongful death, accusing the system Monday of allowing Carson Elementary 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 Gabriel was assaulted and left unconscious on a restroom floor.

The suit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati, also accuses CPS of covering up bullying at Carson –  not just the repeated instances against Gabriel but also at least 14 other instances just in the past school year. The suit claims that CPS may have destroyed security-camera recordings to shield itself from legal action.

CPS, 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 are the school system; Mary Ronan, who just retired as CPS superintendent, and Carson leaders at the time of the bullying, Principal Ruthenia Jackson and Assistant Principal Jeffrey McKenzie. Jackson and McKenzie have left Carson Elementary.

CPS spokeswoman Dawn Grady said Sunday officials would not comment on the suit as the CPS legal team had not yet reviewed the complaint by Cornelia Reynolds and Benyam Taye of Cincinnati. But in May, Ronan publicly disputed the story that a bully had assaulted Gabriel, insisting the boy had merely fainted.

"Cincinnati Public Schools is reviewing with faculty and staff the procedures regarding adult supervision in the restrooms," the district said in a written statement after the incident was initially reported in May. "We are committed to student safety and ensuring that all CPS schools foster a positive, learning environment."

Cincinnati lawyer Jennifer Branch, representing Gabriel's parents, said they gave an interview to WKRC Local 12 television, set to air Monday. Branch said that statement would be the parents' only public comment.

Gabriel's death came amid an outbreak of youth suicide in the region as measured by the Hamilton County 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 reports for the first half of that school year lists only four incidents.

The lawsuit 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 CPS of destroying the evidence.

"Litigation over Gabe's death was probable and foreseeable," the lawsuit said. CPS officials "knew surveillance recordings of Gabe at Carson existed," and they "did not save the surveillance recordings. Upon information and belief, 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 CPS 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.

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 took his own life.

"CPS has established a pattern and practice of covering up the violence and aggression the students suffer at Carson Elementary School," the lawsuit said.

"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 that because Gabriel was clearly unhappy at Carson, his mother had inquired at St. Francis de Sales School about transferring him. The information packet arrived the day after Gabriel died.

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