District May Be Liable for Bullied Teen's Suicide
NEW ORLEANS (CN) - The parents of a bullied 13-year-old who killed himself at school can sue the school district in Joshua, Texas, the 5th Circuit ruled.
Eighth-grader Jon Carmichael's 2010 death at Loftin Middle School made headlines about the problem of bullying in schools. The school's home in Joshua, Texas, is approximately 25 miles south of Fort Worth.
Carmichael's parents, Jon Sr. and Tami, filed a 2011 federal complaint in Fort Worth against several Joshua ISD school officials, claiming teachers and staff were deliberately indifferent to the bullying he was subjected to and ignored bullying policies in place.
The Carmichaels alleged that members of the football team had stripped their son nude shortly before his death, tied him up and placed him in a trash can while taunting him as a "fag" and other slurs.
Several students who observed the attack recorded it and uploaded it onto YouTube, their complaint alleged.
Though a federal judge dismissed the suit in September 2012, the Carmichaels challenged the court's finding that all of the instances of bullying were not instances of sexual harassment.
A three-judge panel with the 5th Circuit found last week that the couple had adequately alleged a violation of Title IX, the federal civil rights law that prohibits sexual discrimination in education.
"The removal of a person's underwear without their consent on numerous occasions plausibly constitutes pervasive harassment of a sexual character," the unsigned, 14-page opinion states. "Moreover, it is irrelevant that both the victim and the harassers in the present case were male because ... it is settled law that 'same-sex sexual harassment is actionable under Title IX.'"
The New Orleans-based federal appeals court said such actions fall outside of simple insults, teasing, pushing and shoving, which are "understandable in the school setting" and not actionable under Title IX.
With the Title IX claim revived, supplemental jurisdiction may also be available for the state-law claims Jon's parents had alleged.
The appeals court did affirm dismissal of the Carmichaels'-equal protection claims, finding the complaint does not allege enough facts that the school district had any policy that resulted in denial of equal protection.
Joshua ISD officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.
Tami Carmichael shared her relief over the verdict with FOX-affiliate KDFW in Dallas.
"I was very emotional when [our attorney] had called and told me," Carmichael said Thursday. "The only thing I could think of ... the only thing I've been doing this for is the other children in the world because it shouldn't happen."
The Carmichaels' attorney Martin Cirkiel told FOX-affiliate KRIV in Houston the ruling "puts schools on notice that when they receive information about a kid being bullied, they better investigate it."
Greg White of Waco, Texas, also represents the family.