The grandmother of a 9-year-old Baltimore student is seeking $10 million in damages from city government and the school system, alleging that the child tried to hang himself at Leith Walk Elementary after his teacher ignored repeated complaints about bullying.
The suit, filed this month, also alleges gross negligence on the part of the boy's teacher, who is accused of taking pictures with her camera phone before going to his aid. By then, the boy had tied his jacket vest up to the classroom door coat hanger, put his head through the sleeve and kicked a chair out from beneath him, according to the suit.
The incident took place in December inside the student's special-education class, said attorney Karl-Henri Gauvin, who represents the student and his grandmother, Renola Dower.
The lawsuit names the Baltimore public school system, city government, the city school board and the Northeast Baltimore school.
Phone calls to the city's solicitor were not returned Friday. The school system said it could not comment because it had not been served the lawsuit, which was filed in Baltimore Circuit Court on April 15.
In the last week, the system has come under fire as reports of chronic bullying in its schools have surfaced.
The national debate about bullying and child suicide hit home in Baltimore after the mother of a third-grade student at Gilmor Elementary School said that her daughter had threatened to kill herself and jump out of a window to escape attacks by students last week. The school system has said that she was not at a window but made a comment that she wanted to commit suicide.
The girl's mother, Geneva Biggus, said that her daughter had been attacked by students for months, and that her numerous meetings with the school's leadership yielded little response. Three students have been suspended for bullying since the incident; one is accused of attacking the girl.
On Friday, Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake addressed the issue of bullying in city schools, saying that she had talked with city schools' CEO Andres Alonso and that school officials are concerned about the climate at Gilmor.
She also offered this advice to parents: "Make sure you start talking about these things before they become incidents."
The 9-year-old Leith Walk student, who suffers from attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, was the target of bullying from his first day at the school, Gauvin said.
The student attended Leith Walk for only three days. On his second day, he was hit in the back with a desk. The third day, he repeatedly told his teacher that he was being bullied and that he would harm himself if she didn't help, according to the complaint. The teacher is identified only as "Ms. Stinger" in the lawsuit.
"The teacher had a duty to protect the child, and because it was a special-needs class, you have a heightened responsibility to act," Gauvin said. "And she didn't."
Gauvin said that when Dower arrived at the school, the teacher showed her pictures of the boy hanging from the door. He said he intends to use the pictures if the case goes before a jury.
The student was taken to University of Maryland Medical Center, where he was admitted for one week for injuries to his neck. It is unknown how long he was hanging, though he was gasping for air by the time the teacher took the picture and put the chair back under his feet, Gauvin said. The coat hook the boy used to hang himself was at least 6 feet off the ground, he said. The student now attends a different school.
Gauvin said he believed the lawsuit will bring to light the problem of chronic bullying and teachers' responsibilities to address it.
"I think it's a combination of the two," Gauvin said."The second day that my client was in the classroom, a desk was thrown at him, and [then] he hanged himself and she pretty much ignored it."
Longtime Maryland attorney William H. "Billy" Murphy said if a series of lawsuits are brought against the school system, it could be facing substantial damages.
"Once the dangers are known, the school system has the responsibility by law to provide adequate security," Murphy said. "They can be successfully sued if they don't."
Suicide-prevention advocates said the school system needs to take notice of the families coming forward to publicly share their stories.
"I think that when a child tells you they wish they were dead or they want to kill themselves, there's something going on," said Lisa Hurka Covington, founder of SPEAK, a Maryland suicide-awareness group for kids.
In 2009, 30 people younger than age 18 committed suicide in Maryland, including two 11-year-olds, she said.
These children "are in pain. And when anyone is in pain, they want it to stop," she said.