At Holy Angels Catholic Academy in Brooklyn, Daniel Fitzpatrick’s biggest test had nothing to do with academics.
The 13-year-old seventh-grader — like so many young people in schools across the country — was the target of relentless bullying because of his grades, his weight and his sweet disposition, family members told the New York Daily News.
This summer, Daniel detailed some of his toughest struggles in a letter that accused classmates of turning on him — and school officials of ignoring his pleas for help.
Then, just days before his 14th birthday, he decided he’d had enough. On Thursday, he wrapped a belt around his neck and hung himself inside the attic of his family’s Staten Island home.
“I gave up,” he wrote in the letter that preceded his death by several weeks. “The teachers . . . they didn’t do anything.”
Documents obtained by The Washington Post offer a more complicated picture of Daniel’s life and reveal that some believe the teenager’s struggles extended beyond the bullying he faced at school.
The boy’s father, also named Daniel Fitzpatrick, told the Daily News that he had been at odds with Holy Angels ever since officials there recommended that Daniel repeat the seventh grade at another school. The suggestion was offensive, Fitzpatrick told the paper, because he attributed Daniel’s academic struggles to the merciless bullying he suffered, noting that the boy’s “confidence was completely shattered.”
In his letter documenting the abuse, Daniel wrote that he was bullied by a group of five boys at the school. “They did it constantly,” he wrote. “I ended up fighting (one boy) and got a fractured pinkie.”
In a statement, Carolyn Erstad, a spokeswoman for the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, said that “the principal and teachers at Holy Angels are heartbroken over the death of Daniel Fitzpatrick. I’ve spoken with them at length and can tell you that they truly cared for Danny and believe they did their best to help him.
“That said, we are examining every incident that has transpired and evaluating every aspect of school policy.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention labels bullying a form of “youth violence.”
Following a 2013 survey, the CDC said that 20 percent of high school students reported being bullied on school property. An estimated 15 percent reported having been bullied electronically in the 12 months before the survey.
Victims face an increased risk of “depression, anxiety, sleep difficulties, and poor school adjustment,” the CDC reported.
Last fall, in a report filed with New York City’s Administration of Children’s Services and obtained by The Post, an investigator wrote that Daniel was failing his classes and engaging in angry outbursts in class.
“Danny said mom being drunk affects him in everything and makes him angry,” the report stated. “He said dad also drinks, but controls himself more than mom. Student can’t remember a time when mom was not drunk often.”
The report continued:
Danny denies physical abuse by mom and dad, but says Kristen, his older sister, hides him in the attic or his room when mom is drunk. He says his dad and Kristen protect him.”
Danny denies suicidal thoughts, but feels angry, sad, has thoughts of wanting to run away. Mother is blaming his teachers for his failures and has written several accusatory letters to school. Student is afraid of both parents anger.
Asked to comment on the documents filed with the children’s services agency, Scott Rynecki, a lawyer representing the Fitzpatrick family, told The Post that they are part of a larger effort to discredit families that present problems for Holy Angels Catholic Academy.
To bolster his claim, Rynecki presented The Post with a letter from the New York State Office of Children and Family Services, which oversees the city agency, addressed to Daniel’s mother, Maureen Fitzpatrick.
The letter states that local child protective service found “no credible evidence” to believe “that the child(ren) has been abused or maltreated.”
“Therefore,” the letter continues, “the report has been determined ‘unfounded.'”
“The belief is that the Catholic school themselves put in some sort of claim and spoke to the child and somehow twisted his claims,” Rynecki told The Post. “ACS issued a letter, which fully and completely exonerated the family.”
Calls to ACS seeking comment were not immediately returned.
Reached by email, an NYPD spokesperson said there had been “no domestic related incidents” at the family’s Staten Island residence “going back to January of 2015.”
Erstad, the spokeswoman for the Brooklyn diocese, declined to comment on the documents.
But she told The Post that under state guidelines, a school guidance counselor was allowed to meet with Daniel up to three times before requiring consent from his parents for more meetings.
A counselor met with Daniel, but his parents declined to give consent for further meetings, the diocese spokeswoman said.
Rynecki, the family attorney, told The Post that Daniel’s death was a “tragic situation that should never have occurred.” His firm, he said, is considering a possible wrongful death lawsuit against the school for failing to have “a proper bullying prevention program.”
If there wasn’t such a program, he said — or if there was, but it wasn’t implemented appropriately — “we intend to hold them accountable for the loss of this young life.”
Academy officials say the school has a prevention program that trains teachers to recognize signs of bullying and to intervene in a constructive manner. The academy’s teachers have undergone two sessions of the training, which lasts one to two days in recent years, officials said. The training is based on the Olweus bullying prevention program.
Regardless of what may have pushed Daniel to suicide, the overwhelming reaction to his death has been one of sympathy: As seen in messages across the internet, he has become something of a martyr, his cherubic face a solemn reminder of bullying’s tragic toll.
“R.I.P. little angel, your suffering is now over and you are resting in the arms of loving angels,” Barbara Chandler of Illinois wrote in an online guest book on the Harmon Funeral Home website. “I am all too familiar with bullying and what it can do. My son was bullied terribly which led to drug abuse which led to an overdose. It will be 3 years 8/19/16.”
“In 2009, my beautiful son Mark also died by suicide,” Nancy Tutz, from New Jersey, added. “Mark was very much like Danny — a gentle, kind soul with a golden heart. I stand with you and promise in honor of Danny and Mark, to never stand by and allow anyone to be bullied in my presence.”
Daniel’s funeral is scheduled for Wednesday at Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church in Staten Island. A GoFundMe page that aimed to raise $10,000 for his memorial has raised more than $120,000.
After his son’s death, Fitzpatrick posted a series of heartbreaking videos on Facebook, castigating his son’s tormentors and encouraging other victims of bullying to remain strong. He referred to Daniel as a “gentle little soul” who “didn’t have a mean bone in his body.”
“To the parents of the boys that tormented my son, all I have to say is that I hope you never never have to feel what my family is going through right now,” Fitzpatrick, a 45-year-old employee at the electric company Con Edison, said in one video. “You get to hold your children for the rest of your lives and their natural lives. I don’t get to do that anymore.
“Your little monsters took that from me and my wife and his sisters.”
The father added: “I hope the memory of what you did to my son is burned in your brain for the rest of your life and you suffer as much as he suffered.”
Two days later, a tearful Fitzpatrick struck a more encouraging tone. Perhaps, he said, he might reach young people contemplating suicide.
“The choice that my boy made is an answer, but it’s not the right answer,” he said. “Don’t let anybody demean you because of the way you look, the way you feel — you matter. You do matter.
“And I’ll tell you honestly, you matter to me and you matter to my son.”
Fitzpatrick said the family had been touched by the outpouring of support they’d received from people all over the world. There were so many messages that they wouldn’t be able to respond to all of them, he said apologetically.
Every child is placed on Earth for a purpose, and his child was no different, he said: While acknowledging he was struggling to accept it, Fitzpatrick implied his son’s purpose was to teach others about bullying.
Still, Fitzpatrick said, there was no consolation for his family’s staggering grief — a wound so deep and painful that he said he wouldn’t “wish it on his worst enemy.”
“He was my life,” Fitzpatrick said. “He was my love. And he still is my love. I’m going to carry that on for the rest of my life.”
He added: “I am lucky to have had in my life.”