High school wasn’t easy for 17-year-old Kenneth Suttner.
As Mary Korte, the mother of one of Suttner’s friends, put it, “Kenny spent his life trying to tolerate negative words and actions.”
That life came to an abrupt end on Dec. 21, when Suttner committed suicide. Now, his former supervisor at a Dairy Queen has been accused of causing his death.
Glasgow School District Superintendent Mike Reynolds admitted bullying took place in his district, but he said it wasn’t too bad. Others disagreed.
“These things were brought to the attention of the appropriate school officials, and it’s a shame it was swept under the rug,” Korte said.
Barbara Smith, the mother of another student, testified that she moved her son out of the school district because the bullying was so bad, so unchecked.
“Every time we went to the school to do something about the bullying, it just got worse,” Smith said.
Perhaps the worst alleged offender, though, was Suttner’s 21-year-old supervisor at the Dairy Queen where he worked. Harley Branham, a manager there, allegedly did everything she could to make the boy’s life miserable.
Allison Bennett, a former co-worker, testified that Branham constantly ridiculed him. She made him lie prostrate on his stomach while cleaning the fast food restaurant’s floor by hand. Once, she threw a cheeseburger at Suttner because he made it incorrectly, Bennett said. (Branham said this was all meant, and taken by Suttner, in jest.)
Eventually, Suttner had enough.
The sun had long set Dec. 21, but Suttner sat on a log outside his house anyway.
The cold didn’t matter much, not that night.
After placing a few calls to friends and family, he raised a .22 to his head and ended his life.
In an unusual legal twist on an all-too-common sad story, Branham was arrested after a prosecutor charged her with involuntary manslaughter.
Missouri law allows for a coroner to seek an official inquest, which, as the Associated Press noted, is a rare process in the United States, similar to a grand jury investigation save for a major difference — coroner’s inquests are public. Following Suttner’s suicide, Howard County Coroner Frank Flaspohler asked a six-person jury to decide whether the boy’s death was an accident or a crime.
“I felt there was bullying going on and things weren’t getting corrected,” Flaspohler said. “Hopefully this makes the school pay attention to what’s going on. And it’s not just in that school. We all need to wake up and say this exists and we need to take care of it.”
On Tuesday, almost 20 witnesses testified at the six-hour inquest. Among them was Branham, who admitted to calling the boy an “a–hole” but said, “There’s a lot of people at Dairy Queen saying I was the reason [he killed himself], but I don’t understand why it would be that way.”
“We wanted to be very cautious and responsible,” said April Wilson, the special prosecutor overseeing the case. “Both sides of the issue are extremely important. A young man is dead. But we also want to acknowledge that it’s not easy being in public education.”
Following the inquest, the jurors concluded the Dairy Queen “negligently failed to properly train employees about harassment prevention and resolution” and that the school district was “negligent in failing to prevent bullying.” Finally, they found Branham was the “primary actor” in the boy’s death.
It is unclear whether she has a lawyer or has entered a plea.
Dairy Queen, meanwhile, released a statement reading, “We first learned of the situation today and our thoughts and prayers are with the family. We are still in the process of gathering information but understand from the franchisee that the manager is no longer employed at this location.”
The Suttner family also released a statement, calling the jury’s decision “justice for Kenny.”