Mallory Grossman, 12, committed suicide in June. Her parents blame the Rockaway School District. (Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

Updated

For months, 12-year-old Mallory Grossman received the taunts in text messages, Instagram posts and Snapchats.

She was a loser and had no friends, they told her. At one point, according to an attorney for Mallory’s family, the girls even asked her, “Why don’t you kill yourself?”

In the classrooms and hallways of her middle school in Rockaway Township, N.J., a group of sixth grade girls continued to torment her, the family says. They would tease Mallory, give her dirty looks and snub her, shooing her away from their lunch table.

The taunts, her parents say, soon took a toll on the lively young cheerleader and gymnast. At school, Mallory’s grades deteriorated. At home, she complained of constant headaches and stomach pain. She begged to stay home from school.

After the bullying began in October of last year, Mallory’s parents spoke to her teachers, counselors and school administrators — along with the students’ parents — pleading with them to help put an end to the ugliness.

Then, on June 14, Mallory took her own life. The manner of death was not disclosed.

Her suicide sent shock waves through her school district and wider community in New Jersey, home to one of the toughest anti-bullying laws in the nation.

On Tuesday, Mallory’s parents announced their intent to sue the Rockaway Township School District and its administrators “who ignored months of pleas to stop this,” their lawyer, Bruce Nagel, said in a news conference, alleging “gross negligence”

Nagel said he will file the notice of an intent to sue in the next few days and plans to file the lawsuit in the months that follow.

(On Wednesday, Rockaway Township Schools superintendent Greg McCann posted a statement saying that because the matter is the subject of a lawsuit and is under investigation by the Morris County prosecutor’s office, the school district cannot discuss the case. “The teachers, staff and administrators … are, as they have always been, and will continue to be, committed to protecting the rights and safety for all our students,” he said.)

The allegations come entirely from the parents without specific examples of the text messages and posts. They have not been independently verified.

Nagel said the parents hoped Mallory’s death would underscore the “epidemic” of cyberbullying that is taking place in schools across the nation.

“We are here today to bring light to the fact that this small device can be a lethal weapon in the hands of the wrong child,” Nagel said holding up an iPhone in the Tuesday news conference.

Schools have always struggled to combat bullying in hallways, classrooms and playgrounds. But the rise of the Internet and smartphones has made this challenge tougher. It’s easier for young people to do it and available for all to see, increasing the humiliation of the victim.

One recent study surveying 5,600 children nationwide between the ages of 12 to 17 found that 34 percent had experienced cyberbullying in their lifetimes.

Meanwhile, the number of adolescent suicides has risen dramatically in recent decades, according to a 2016 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics. The study found that bullying has a “clear relationship” with committing or thinking of committing suicide. Moreover, the study found that excessive Internet use was “strongly associated with higher levels of depression” and thoughts or attempts to commit suicide.

The family of Brandy Vela in Houston believes the 18-year-old fatally shot herself in November in part due to cyberbullying. They said others in the school ridiculed her weight, creating fake dating websites about her, saying she was available for free sex.

The Grossman family may also pursue legal action against the parents of the three or four girls who they say bullied Mallory. Mallory’s mother, Dianne Grossman, said she spoke to the mother of one of the girls the night before Mallory took her own life.

The mother dismissed the bullying, telling Grossman it was just a “big joke” and that she should not worry about it, Grossman said at the news conference. Three minutes after Grossman asked that the woman’s daughter stop texting Mallory, the girl sent text messages to the 12-year-old, the family claims.


Dianne and Seth Grossman, parents of Mallory Grossman, attend a news conference in Roseland, N.J., Tuesday. (Seth Wenig/AP)

Each month since they became aware of the “relentless” taunts, the Grossmans say they complained to administrators, who promised to look into the allegations. Even hours before Mallory took her life, her parents met with school officials, begging them to do something. They requested that administrators file a mandatory Harassment, Intimidation, and Bullying (HIB) Report, but the school never did, Grossman said.

When Mallory’s grades took a hit, school officials focused meetings on her academics.

“They were not at that time concerned with her emotional well being,” Grossman said, even though her daughter’s usual A and B grades had plummeted to Cs and Ds.

“There was a pattern, a regular history, pattern of the school dismissing my concerns,” Grossman said.

Some of the cyberbullying against Mallory — at least two of the girls’ Snapchats — took place on school property, Grossman said. In Mallory’s final days, her parents were trying to move her to a private school, but “unfortunately she didn’t give us a chance to do so,” Grossman said.

The mother said she believes the girls directed their taunts at Mallory out of resentment.

“She was popular within her own circle,” Grossman said. She was an athlete, a “quiet child” and a “good student,” Grossman said.

“I think that she kind of represented what they couldn’t be, Grossman said.

The Grossman family was fairly new to the school district — they moved to town about three years ago.

“It’s hard to understand that while she had a great circle of friends and she was liked among her peers and she was active,” Grossman said, “that still doesn’t quiet the noise of the girls that didn’t like her, and who decided to put a target on her back.”

Such snide remarks, dirty looks and intimidating messages can be extra hurtful during middle school, a complicated time when adolescents’ bodies and hormones are changing, and when social status at school means everything, Grossman said.

Grossman said she wishes the school had tried to gather the parents at the school to address the issue. She said she hopes this lawsuit might remind parents of the importance of constantly monitoring their children’s use of technology and social media. They should not assume that “‘my child would never do that.’”

She also criticized the fact that the school touted its self-assessed A grade in recent anti-bullying reports, giving itself a score of 74 out of 78 in the most recent self-assessment posted on the district’s website.


Attorney, Bruce Nagel, holds up a cellphone during a news conference in Roseland, N.J., on Aug. 1, as his clients, Dianne and Seth Grossman, listen. (Seth Wenig/AP)

New Jersey’s anti-bullying laws were toughened after an outcry over the suicide of a Rutgers University freshman, Tyler Clementi, in 2011. Just before he jumped to his death off the George Washington Bridge, Clementi found out that his roommate and another classmate had been using a webcam to spy on him having sex with another man, exposing his encounters on social media.

The new laws demanded more staff training and quicker reporting of bullying. They require that schools monitor, investigate and document episodes of child bullying. Superintendents who don’t to comply could lose their licenses, and students found responsible for bullying can be suspended or expelled.

In the aftermath of Mallory’s death, her family is creating nonprofit foundation to combat bullying, called “Mal’s Army,” Grossman said.

Mallory had two sisters and a brother. Her “beautiful soul and free spirit touched so many of us during her dynamic 12 years,” her family wrote in her obituary. She was described as a compassionate, creative young girl who loved nature, the outdoors and “flowers, every color and shape.”

She was “always crafting something” and often made and sold jewelry to raise money for her favorite charity, Camp Good Days, which provides summer camp experiences for children battling cancer and other illnesses.

“It was her giving spirit and love for all people and things that drove her to move mountains,” the obituary read.

“Mallory was our teacher,” her family wrote. “She taught us how to love each other as only a child can.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with a statement from the school superintendent. The headline and parts of the story have been changed to stress that the allegations, which come entirely from the parents, have not been independently verified or supported by physical evidence.

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