CINCINNATI (CN) — A Sixth Circuit panel ruled Tuesday that Cincinnati school officials are not entitled to governmental immunity from civil rights claims brought by the estate of an 8-year-old who took his own life after repeated bullying.
The federal appeals court affirmed a ruling by U.S. District Judge Timothy Black, who refused to dismiss claims against the principal and vice principal of Carson Elementary School, among others.
Gabriel Taye was a third-grade student at Carson when he killed himself in January 2017, following at least 12 incidents of bullying at the school. Most notably, Taye was knocked unconscious for more than seven minutes in a school bathroom two days before he used a necktie to hang himself from his bunkbed.
Despite surveillance footage of the incident, according to court documents, principal Ruthenia Jackson and vice principal Jeffrey McKenzie misrepresented the nature of Taye’s injuries to his parents and told them he fainted.
Taye’s parents, Cornelia Reynolds and Benyam Taye, and Karen Meyers, the administrator of the his estate, say the boy was bullied from the time he was a first grader at the school, and that officials either downplayed the severity of incidents or flat out refused to notify them.
In their suit, Taye’s parents said the officials’ failure to respond to bullying was the cause of their son’s death. They claimed Carson was overwhelmed by violent students, and cited incident logs that included threats of violence against teachers, threats of sexual assault against other students, and students throwing furniture or attempting to choke one another during fights.
Black, an appointee of Barack Obama, denied the officials’ motion to dismiss and determined they were not entitled to governmental immunity because of the reckless nature of their conduct.
The case was argued before the Sixth Circuit in December 2019, and U.S. Circuit Judge Bernice Donald wrote Tuesday’s opinion.
Donald, also an Obama appointee, said the allegations in the complaint were sufficient to prove Taye’s suicide was foreseeable, despite officials’ argument that the “aggressive behavior” at their school was not the same as bullying.
“When evaluating a complaint’s allegations,” the judge wrote, “substance matters more than labels. And, as our recitation earlier in this opinion demonstrates, the complaint is replete with facially plausible allegations of Taye being physically attacked at school over the course of multiple years.”
Jackson and McKenzie argued that suspensions handed down to perpetrators and phone calls to Taye’s parents were sufficient responses under school policy, which Donald called a “gross mischaracterization of the plaintiffs’ factual allegations.”
“The plaintiffs provide multiple examples of specific instances in which Jackson and McKenzie withheld information regarding Taye’s safety and wellbeing as a student at Carson Elementary and failed to punish the students that attacked Taye,” she wrote. (Emphasis in original)
The judge added: “Even if Jackson and McKenzie did leave voicemails with Reynolds, simply leaving a voicemail on a few occasions falls egregiously short of an adequate response by the school to ensure Taye’s parents knew about the ongoing risks he faced at school.”
Donald chided Jackson and McKenzie’s response to the bathroom incident that immediately preceded Taye’s death. She said they not only misrepresented the events to Taye’s parents, but “also seemingly made no effort to investigate how Taye was knocked unconscious during the hour between the attack and their phone call to Taye’s mother.”
“Although Jackson and McKenzie had access to surveillance footage of the incident, they chose not to watch it before telling Taye’s mother that he simply fainted and required no additional medical attention,” the ruling states.
Writing for a unanimous three-judge panel, Donald called the officials’ actions “the very definition of recklessness” and said Taye’s suicide was plainly foreseeable, especially considering the school’s guidelines on bullying include suicide as a risk.
The conclusion of Donald’s opinion was emphatic to Taye’s family and left no room for doubt regarding the denial of immunity to Carson’s principal and vice principal. She said the boy’s parents sufficiently alleged that the school officials lied to them and chose not to tell them about six incidents of bullying.
“They failed to discipline students who attacked Taye at school. They 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 judge wrote.
U.S. Circuit Judges Richard Griffin, an appointee of George W. Bush, and Jane Stranch, another Obama appointee, also sat on the panel.
In a statement, Reynolds’ attorney Jennifer Branch, now a judge-elect for the Hamilton County Common Pleas Court, said she looked forward to a trial.
“It is not too late for Gabe’s family to seek justice,” Branch said, “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.”
Aaron Herzig, a partner at Taft Law in Cincinnati representing the school officials, said in a statement that the ruling “does not reflect the facts as they have developed throughout this case.”
“This is a preliminary decision based on plaintiffs’ side of the story and assuming that everything they say in their complaint is true,” he said.