When bullying leads to suicide, are schools responsible?

Parents are suing schools that don’t protect their children from harm. (Photo: Getty Images)
Parents are suing schools that don’t protect their children from harm. (Photo: Getty Images)

In early December, a middle school student in California named Rosalie Avila committed suicide. Her story echoes those that seem to arise on a regular basis now: stories of school bullies, mournful communities, and GoFundMe pages created to finance funerals.

But there’s also a movement to find justice for what parents believe was their late child’s school neglecting to stop bullying on school property and online. In September 2016, a Rochester, N.Y., family filed a lawsuit against the district of their 12-year-old’s school, claiming negligence for an ongoing bullying problem that they say caused their child’s suicide. In August, a New Jersey family filed a lawsuit against their child’s school district, saying it failed to stymie cyberbullying that they say caused their 12-year-old to kill herself. An 8-year-old boy in Cincinnati died by suicide, and the family sued the school district for wrongful death in August.

The Avila family now plans to do the same, saying they verbally told school administrators and teachers of the Yucaipa-Calimesa School District that Rosie was being bullied but were met with inaction, according to the family’s lawyer, Brian Claypool.

But the Avila family also says laws regarding bullying in public schools need to change, and they started an online petition for U.S. Sens. Kamala Harris and Mike Morrell, and California Assembly member Chad Hayes to draft “Rosalie’s Law.” Started two weeks ago, the petition has nearly met its 5,000-signature goal. “Rosie’s Law would require schools nationwide to establish and implement suicide detection and prevention programs on campus,” according to a press release.

Meanwhile, the school district issued the following statement to Yahoo Lifestyle:

“Our thoughts and prayers continue to be with the Avila family. Our students, teachers, staff and the communities are mourning the loss of Rosalie as well. Yucaipa-Calimesa School District is committed to working with its students and the community on academics, student safety and well-being. We strive every day to be a safe, supportive and engaging learning environment. We will continue to raise awareness and work with students and the community to support our children. The issue of suicide awareness and prevention is very important to discuss and address as a community. We are cooperating fully with the Sheriff’s office as it conducts its investigation. We are also conducting our own internal investigation. Given that these efforts are ongoing, and due to our commitment to protecting the privacy of our students and their families, we cannot share any details at this time.”

But as media outlets report these stories with what seems to be increasing frequency, one might wonder: Are child suicide rates actually increasing, or is more attention paid now because of the 24-hour news cycle and the speed at which these stories spread on social media?

Rosie Avila, who attended Mesa View Middle School in California, took her own life in early December. The family says the school ignored its “bullying epidemic,” according to the family’s lawyer, Brian Claypool. (Photo: Courtesy of the Avila family)
Rosie Avila, who attended Mesa View Middle School in California, took her own life in early December. The family says the school ignored its “bullying epidemic,” according to the family’s lawyer, Brian Claypool. (Photo: Courtesy of the Avila family)

According to a CNN report in August citing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, children younger than 13 die by suicide once every five days. The data, which covered U.S. suicides from 1999 to 2015 for children ages 5 to 12, found the rate has increased by 54 percent for 11- and 12-year-olds.

A study from May 2017, meanwhile, looked at data from the Pediatric Health Information System and found that the number of children’s hospital admissions of patients ages 5 to 17 for suicidal thoughts or actions more than doubled from 2008 to 2015.

While grieving parents are beginning to hold schools responsible for their children’s deaths, every state already has laws in place that require schools to implement anti-bullying policies. And at Mesa View Middle School, which Avila attended, reporting procedures and disciplinary action were outlined, according to the school district’s publicly available bullying prevention and intervention policy. “School employees are required to report incidences of bullying to principal and principal is obligated to report to district; social media accounts may be suspended,” the policy says. “Corrective actions for a student who commits an act of bullying of any type may include counseling, behavioral intervention and education, and, if the behavior is severe or pervasive as defined in Education Code 48900, may include suspension or expulsion in accordance with district policies and regulations.”

Whether that policy was implemented and enforced is the subject of an investigation. It also reflects the larger problem lawmakers and arbiters nationwide face when dealing with instances of school-related bullying: There is a lack of effective enforcement mechanisms by the state, and a lack of data about which policies are best practice.

“There are anti-bullying curricula out there, but nothing that’s demonstrated all that much success,” Justin Patchin, the co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center and a professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “We’re learning over the last decade that we’ve made progress on what works but we need more resources. Some schools are doing amazing things to prevent bullying, but there are no resources to evaluate efforts — it’s all kind of speculation and anecdotes.”

Patchin explains that based on the data available, schools that use a “social-emotional learning curriculum” to teach students things like the “steps to respect” tend to have an impact on how kids relate to each other. Still, that doesn’t reflect what happens when there is bullying. One 2013 study conducted by the American Education Research Association recommended that school employees need to better describe the types of bullying that take place to better prevent it.

“Federal, state, private money is all needed. Some schools fundraise for these things, and PTAs sponsor assemblies or other programs to raise awareness. But if we want to make a serious dent, legislatively, we need more resources,” Patchin explains. “The problem with most state bullying laws is that they say schools have to deal with the issue and require schools to have policies, but don’t provide provisions or money for schools to purchase the curriculum or hire social workers to do assessments. If authorities were really prioritizing this, they’d also provide the resources to fight it.”

The California Department of Education outlines sample bullying prevention and conflict resolution policies on its website, as well as 35 regulations within the California Education Code that relate to discrimination, harassment, and bullying. California Assembly member Patrick O’Donnell, chair of the education committee, declined to comment on the laws through a spokesperson, and O’Donnell’s co-chair, Assembly member Rocky Chavez, did not respond to requests for comment.

For the Avila family to win a case against the school district, the family would have to prove that bullying was the cause of their daughter’s death — a difficult thing to do in a world where the internet has led to increased reports of depression in children, though Claypool says causation is “defined as a substantial factor in bringing about the death, not the sole cause of the death.”

Dewey Cornell, a professor at the University of Virginia and clinical psychologist who works on the school’s Youth Violence Project, says it’s difficult to determine how frequently school systems are sued for failing to protect students from bullying because most cases are settled without readily available records. But he says there has been a “dramatic increase in litigation” since the early 1990s. Still, parents tend to lose cases to schools, Cornell adds, citing data from 2014.

“No one expects schools to be perfect, but educators cannot ignore bullying and they should take reasonable steps to maintain a healthy school climate that is conducive to learning,” Cornell told Yahoo Lifestyle in an email. “In the workplace, adults are protected from a hostile work environment. Women and men who are sexually harassed at work can sue. There is no reason why children in school should not be afforded the same protections as adults in the workplace.”

Or, as Rosalie’s bereaved mother, Charlene Avila, told NBC News, “Now I know what my daughter was up against. Something needs to be done.“

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