“You should die.”
“Dig a hole and bury yourself.”
Die of cancer, die in a fiery crash. Her mother was a fool to love her.
A 14-year-old Franklin, Ind., girl with special needs was barraged with these insults by her fellow students, leading her to attempt suicide twice. And the school district did nothing to remedy the problem, according to a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana this month.
The plaintiffs, known as R.N. and her mother and stepfather, both named as R.T. in court documents, are suing the Franklin Community School Corp. in an attempt to hold them accountable and push for changes within the system.
Thomas Blessing, a lawyer for the family, told The Washington Post that R.N. had been bullied for about five years. In addition to verbal taunts, he said the girl had been physically harassed by her fellow students. The endless taunting led her to attempt suicide twice, in May 2017 and again exactly a year later, he said.
According to the complaint, R.N. has autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and depression, which makes her eligible for special education and protects her under federal law. It says the disability also made her a target for her peers.
The lawsuit alleges that the school district “created, fostered or permitted a hostile environment to exist in R.N.'s school that deprived her of educational opportunities and benefits on the basis of her disability.”
Blessing said R.N.'s family repeatedly implored the school district to discipline their daughter’s bullies and have them removed from her classes. R.N.'s parents met and emailed with various school administrators and staffers about the bullying problem, according to the complaint, “yet they failed to take reasonable measures to prevent it or to stop it from happening.”
School officials had told the parents that they were “taking care of it,” Blessing said, and suggested that the girl attend half-days or enroll in homebound services.
“One would think the first suicide attempt would have gotten the school to pay attention and do something about it,” Blessing said, noting that the bullying “ran the gamut from verbal abuse to threats to physical assault.”
As a result of the harassment, “R.N. had trouble sleeping and began having auditory and visual hallucinations,” the complaint says. “Eventually, R.N. became so depressed that she developed suicidal thoughts, at one point telling an adult that she believed that going to heaven would cure her autism.”
The family wants school district staff to be educated on how to identify and mitigate bullying, and for the school to discipline the students responsible for tormenting their daughter.
Under Indiana law, schools are required to have written rules in place for how to handle bullying, which it defines as “overt, unwanted, repeated acts or gestures” made verbally, physically, in writing or via digital transmissions that place a person or their property in danger of harm or endanger their physical or mental well-being.
Blessing said that R.N.'s attempts to take her own life clearly demonstrate that such harm was inflicted.
The Franklin Community School Corp.'s attorney, Thomas Wheeler, declined to comment on the allegations in the case, as it involves a minor, but he said that “the school follows all federal and state directives on bullying as well as its own policies and has done so consistently.”
According to the school district’s website, it have developed a bullying prevention plan to comply with state laws that require it to do so. “Franklin Community Schools is committed to providing students a safe and nurturing environment,” the site reads. “FCS has implemented an anonymous reporting system for anyone who is a victim of bullying or witnessed bullying at school.”
But the complaint alleges that it has not met those standards in this case and goes further to allege that “there is a long-standing and systemic bullying problem” and that “the severity of the bullying is worse for students with disabilities than it is for their peers in general education.”
“As far as what the school has done, it’s not working,” Blessing said.