CINCINNATI (FOX19) - The family of an 8-year-old CPS student who died by suicide after being bullied in 2017 won a key victory in court Tuesday.
Gabriel Taye was bullied at Carson Elementary countless times in the three years before his death, including shocking incidents where bullying occurred but school officials neither helped him nor told his parents, according to the court opinion.
Taye’s family claims a “cover-up” occurred “aimed at keeping any information regarding the rampant violence and aggressive behavior at Carson Elementary a secret,” according to their complaint.
Taye died on Jan. 27, 2017.
The family filed a civil rights action against CPS’s Board of Education in the US District Court for the Southern District of Ohio. Other defendants include former superintendent Mary Ronan, former Carson Elementary Principal Ruthenia Jackson, former Vice Principal Jeffrey McKenzie and former school nurse Margaret McLaughlin.
The family also sued Jackson, McKenzie and McLaughlin alleging state-level tort claims including wrongful death and emotional distress.
The defendants filed a dismissal motion on the state tort claims, arguing they are immune because their acts were within the scope of their official responsibilities.
The district court judge ruled against that motion. CPS elected not to appeal. Jackson and McKenzie did appeal to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, and the opinion issued Tuesday only pertains to the tort suits against them.
Arguments were held Dec. 4, 2019. Jackson and McKenzie argued Taye’s family had not established they’d acted recklessly.
The appellate court issued its opinion upholding the district court’s ruling Tuesday.
A 24-minute school security video from Jan. 24 released by CPS appears to show a fellow student hit Taye inside a restroom. The video shows Taye lying motionless on the ground for seven minutes before an adult notices the situation.
Tuesday’s opinion notes: “The school nurse examined Taye but did not call 911. Instead, an hour after the incident, the school nurse called Taye’s mother and told her that Taye had ‘fainted,’ was ‘alert,’ that his ‘vitals [were] fine,’ and that he didn’t require any additional medical attention. (...) Jackson and McKenzie never told Reynolds that a student attacked her son in the bathroom, that the same student attacked other boys in the bathroom that day, or that her son was unconscious for more than seven minutes. None of the Defendants reported this incident, either internally or externally.”
Taye missed school on Jan. 25 and went back to Carson Elementary on Jan. 26.
Writing of Jan. 27, the opinion notes: “That day, two boys again attacked Taye while he was in the school bathroom, stealing his water bottle and attempting to flush it down the toilet. Taye reported the incident to a teacher, but nothing came of it.”
The opinion continues: “Taye came home from school that day around 5:30 p.m., took one of his neckties, and used it to hang himself from the top bunk of his bunk bed. Taye’s mother found him hanging from the bunk bed, unresponsive. As Reynolds began administering CPR to Taye, a neighbor heard her screaming and came to help. Reynolds called 911 as her neighbor attempted to revive her son. When the paramedics arrived on the scene, they were unable to revive Taye.”
Jennifer Branch, lead attorney for Taye’s mother, Cornelia Reynolds, recounts the same events.
“He came home from school that last day,” Branch told FOX19 NOW in 2017. “Mom found him [dead] in his bedroom a few hours later.”
Police investigated the incident. No charges were filed.
A CPS spokesperson said at the time the connection between the incident at school and Taye’s suicide was “not clear.”
The spokesperson continued, arguing school officials followed protocol once they became aware of the situation, including the school nurse, McLaughlin, who determined Taye’s vital signs were normal.
The family claims Jackson and McKenzie “misrepresented the severity of and outright concealed several bullying incidents involving Taye,” according to their complaint.
Tuesday’s opinion details a bullying incident from 2014 in which Taye’s mother was told the boy’s injuries were not severe, though his two front teeth were removed as a result.
Three other bullying incidents happened in the 2015-16 school year, according to the opinion. After one such incident, the school didn’t try to contact Taye’s parents, and there is no indication the school reprimanded the bullies.
The incidents escalated the next fall, the opinion states. Taye was shoved and punched in one incident, and the school reprimanded him for the behavior, possibly for having fought back to defend himself. Similar incidents followed, including one where Taye suffered a head injury and his mother was denied her request to review video footage.
Three other attacks, as the opinion describes them, took place in January 2017. One occurred in the lunchroom when a student approached Taye in the cafeteria and began kicking him. Taye’s parents were again denied their request to review video footage.
Branch issued a statement on Tuesday’s ruling that reads in part:
“The Court stated that the falsifying of bullying that occurred prevented Gabe’s parents from fully understanding Gabe’s ‘horrifying experience at Carson Elementary until it was too late.’
“It is not too late for Gabe’s family to seek justice, not just for Gabe, but for all children who may be bullied at CPS schools. The truth about what happened to Gabe at Carson Elementary needs to be revealed and shared with all parents. We have been able to gather testimony and evidence these last few months. Now we can proceed to trial.”
Attorney Aaron Herzig represents the Board of Education as well as Jackson, McKenzie and Ronan in the case.
“This is a preliminary procedural step in the case, not a final decision,” Herzig said. “It is based on plaintiffs’ side of the story and assumes that everything they say in their complaint is true. However, it does not reflect the facts as they have developed throughout this case.”
Branch told FOX19 NOW Tuesday Jackson and McKenzie cannot appeal the ruling any further and that the next step in the tort case is a phase of discovery.
She also confirmed the civil rights case against CPS is currently proceeding.
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