Emilie Olsen, 13, was a good student — a beautiful girl who loved visiting the zoo and celebrating Halloween, according to her father.
But she also struggled with depression and self-harm and years of relentless bullying by her peers that her parents allege teachers and administrators did not do enough to stop — and which ultimately pushed the seventh grader, pictured above, to kill herself. It’s why the girl’s parents, Marc and Cindy Olsen, are now suing their daughter’s school district for damages and a reformation of policies.
“My daughter’s death is not in vain … good will come of this,” wrote Marc on his Facebook page on Dec. 11, following a candlelight vigil at which 200 community members marked the one-year anniversary of his daughter’s suicide. That was also the day that her bereaved parents, of Fairfield, Ohio, filed their lawsuit against the Fairfield City School District.
“Emilie, an Asian-American, was continually bullied, harassed, assaulted, battered, and discriminated against in school, and further bullied and harassed online, because of her race, national origin, and gender, as well as her association with Caucasian students, and her perceived sexual orientation and practices,” reads the lawsuit, which names the school superintendent, principals of the district’s middle and intermediate schools, a counselor, a teacher, and slew of peers who were students with Emilie, who was adopted by her parents from China when she was nine months old.
“Emilie and her parents tried to end the bullying and repeatedly pleaded with certain Defendants for help,” the 82-page lawsuit continues. “Defendants failed to stop the bullying, and it continued. Consequently, Emilie suffered severe anguish, distress, and depression, and ultimately committed suicide. Sadly, Emilie’s case was not an outlier; other Fairfield students also suffered unrelenting bullying and discrimination, and two of those students attempted suicide months before Emilie’s death.” A Facebook page called “Shame on Fairfield City Schools” has 519 likes and attempts to catalog the history of bullying against Emilie and other students, particularly by posting copies of alleged “canned” email responses sent out by school superintendent Paul Otten.
A scene from the recent candlelight vigil in Emilie’s memory. (Photo: Facebook)
A spokesperson for the Fairfield City School District, Gina Gentry-Fletcher, responded to Yahoo Parenting’s request for comment with the following statement:
“The Fairfield City School District is aware that a lawsuit has been filed against the District and a number of additional defendants by the Olsens. The District will be defending the litigation and will be providing appropriate responses in the course of the litigation. The District has no further comment at this time regarding this pending matter.”
Among the horrific claims of abuse toward Emilie by her peers are messages like “Emilie is a whore” and “Go kill yourself Emilie” scrawled on middle-school bathroom walls, a fake social media account called “Emilie Olsen is Gay” asserting that she liked chewing tobacco and having sex with random people in the woods, peers goading her to end her life (and even, in one case, handing her a razor blade in attempt to help her along) — as well as constant disparaging comments about her ethnicity and physical assaults that included being tripped, pushed, and hit. As a result, the lawsuit claims, Emilie asked her father, “Why can’t I be white like you and mom?” and requested permission to dye her hair in order to look more Caucasian. The countless incidents, the parents claim, were witnessed by many, discussed with school officials, and addressed at various meetings, but ultimately not taken seriously enough to end the abuse.
Now her parents hope to force change in the wake of her death. “I struggle daily with the thought of adults and children taking their lives and the aftermath of the tragedy,” wrote her mother, Cindy, on a personal fundraising page for an Out of the Darkness walk sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “Our lives will never be the same, but if we can prevent and help save lives so no other families will have to endure the pain that we go thru day to day, then that is what we will do.”
More and more parents around the country have been reacting to the suicide of a child in ways similar to that of Cindy and Marc — by attempting to hold officials at their son or daughter’s school accountable and to fight for change. Recently, the Connecticut parents of Bart Palosz, who killed himself at 15 on his first day of school in 2013, sued his school and their town for not doing enough to prevent the bullying that plagued him. Other similar actions have included a lawsuit against a Nevada school district by parents of a 13-year-old girl who killed herself after being bullied (which was dismissed by a federal judge), and another that sought to hold a Florida school accountable for a bullied 12-year-old girl’s suicide.
The first suit to ever find a school district liable for a student’s suicide also involved a 13-year-old — Shawn Wyke, who killed himself in 1989, days after the dean of students confronted him about a previous attempt by reading him Bible verses and taking no further action, according to USA Today.
“We’ve definitely been hearing about more of these cases,” Justin Patchin, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and the co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, told Yahoo Parenting in August for a story about Palosz. “To win them, [the parents] really have to prove that the school was deliberately indifferent and that they did nothing about the bullying — or else it’s a pretty tough call.” The toughest part, he added, is that there’s “still so much uncertainty as far as when schools and others can be held accountable for a lack of action, because there’s no clear standard.”
Also muddying the waters is the complex relationship between bullying and suicide, according to David Bond, vice president of programs for The Trevor Project, a national organization that provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBT youth. "There needs to be an adequate, effective response to eliminate bullying altogether, regardless of whether people attempt suicide or not,” Bond tells Yahoo Parenting. “And so many people have a part in that response, including schools, and parents, and legislators.” Further, Bond notes, “This girl suffered massive injustices. There’s an instinct to think that somebody needs to pay for it.”
Joanne Cacciatore, a University of Arizona professor of social work and a grief expert who counsels bereaved parents, also notes the parents’ response here is understandable. “It certainly is normal to want to try to find out why something like this happened, and to want to seek answers,” she tells Yahoo Parenting. “But it’s both difficult and helpful for parents, a lot of whom are motivated [to sue] not only for their own accord, but because they want to change things for other children. So I see it sometimes as an unselfish but necessary act in order to cause a change in society.”
That’s particularly the case, Cacciatore notes, when parents who seek answers about a death “uncover things that disturb them, such as a community or agency that failed them.” She adds, “Thirteen is a very vulnerable age. We have a problem as a culture if we’re not teaching our children compassion — and part of that responsibility falls not only on parents, but on schools.” A lawsuit “hits them where it hurts the most,” which, realistically speaking, may sometimes be the only way to truly force change. “I wish it weren’t that way,” she says.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, round-the-clock help is available through the Trevor Project’s Trevor Lifeline (866-488-7386) and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255).
Top photo of Emilie: Out of the Darkness/Cindy Olsen