The family of a 5th grader who committed suicide last year after being bullied plans to sue the Utah elementary school and the district where she attended class.
A notice of claim, which is filed prior to a lawsuit, alleges the Davis School District and Foxboro Elementary School in North Salt Lake violated 16 state and federal laws — including those requiring schools to treat students equally, provide educational opportunity and protect homeless students — in addition to the state and federal constitutions, the Associated Press reports. The student's mother said her daughter, who was Black and had autism, was bullied over her race and disabilities and because the family was facing homelessness, according to KUTV, a Salt Lake City news outlet.
Milton Grimes, a civil rights attorney and one of the lawyers representing the family, said the litigation will also target the district's alleged failure to provide McKinney-Vento services when there were indicators the family was homeless.
The claim includes a timeline of alleged events, including instances where students who bullied Isabella "Izzy" Tichenor said she smelled, ridiculed her skin color and eyebrows, and used racial slurs against her. Grimes recounted how the student once brought a can of aerosol to school to help her smell better.
"It's the responsibility of schoolteachers and administrators to help people they see are in need — especially young, vulnerable, innocent children," said Grimes. "And they did not do anything with the complaints — by the mother and the stepfather and the child — of being called names."
“As a result of this unchecked bullying and the school’s overall ‘deliberate indifference’ to minority students, Izzy failed nearly all her classes. At the time of her death, she could barely read or do math on a first-grade level,” the claim said about the fifth grader, according to AP. The student's family plans to seek damages of $14.1 million, the news outlet said.
The news of the lawsuit emerged almost exactly a year after Tichenor's death on Nov. 6, 2021.
It also comes after a federal settlement reached with the Davis School District after a U.S. Department of Justice investigation revealed "serious and widespread racial harassment of Black and Asian-American students." The DOJ investigation found hundreds of instances of documented uses of the "N-word," other racial slurs and comments, and physical assaults targeting district students across dozens of schools.
The investigation concluded that the district's ineffective response left students to believe it condoned such behavior. The settlement agreement required Davis School District to create a new department devoted to race discrimination complaints and to train staff on identifying and responding to racial discrimination complaints and discriminatory practices, among other things.
The district responded in a statement on the settlement that it "takes these findings very seriously."
"They do not reflect the values of this community and the expectations of the district," the district said in a news release. "The district pledges to correct these practices."
A district-hired firm conducted a separate investigation into the claim that the 5th grader had committed suicide as a result of bullying. That investigation concluded that while there were reports the girl was bullied, there was no direct evidence it was on the basis of race or her disability, according to KSL-TV.
Davis School District serves about 73,000 students, of whom around 1% are Black and 5% have disabilities, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Recently, in a separate bullying lawsuit,against California’s El Segundo Unified School District, a jury required the district to pay $1 million for failing to protect a middle school student from bullying, according to an Aug. 25 verdict.
“Schools should understand that noncompliance with their state laws and policies can be used against them when they are challenged based on their response to allegations of bullying,” Bobby Truhe, an attorney with KSB School Law, told K-12 Dive at the time.
Now, Grimes says he hopes a financial penalty in the Utah lawsuit will hold that district accountable for its actions, or lack thereof. "The only way of showing the harm and having someone recognize this has to be corrected is monetary awards," Grimes said.
When asked for comment on the lawsuit, the Davis School District said in an email that it "sends its sincere, heartfelt condolences to the family of Izzy Tichenor" and "our focus and energy remain devoted to providing a safe and welcoming environment for all students."
The district plans to carefully review the suit and discuss it with legal counsel, according to a district spokesperson.