'Sweep bullying under the rug' no more: Child's death set to bring changes to Cincinnati schools, could be a lesson for other cities

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CINCINNATI – A wide-ranging settlement proposal in a bullying case that led to the death of an 8-year-old boy could provide a blueprint for combating bullying in schools.

Ross Ellis, founder of the nonprofit advocacy group STOMP Out Bullying, said that for any plan to work, the school district – in this case Cincinnati Public Schools, CPS – must be committed. Historically, she said, school districts "sweep bullying under the rug."

Gabriel Taye, a third grader, was bullied repeatedly at school before taking his own life in 2017. The city Board of Education will consider a settlement Monday that would pay the family $3 million and bring changes to combat bullying in the school district.

The family's lawyer, civil rights attorney Al Gerhardstein, said that to honor Gabriel, the family would use the settlement to protect current and future CPS students. A memorial to Gabriel will be placed at Carson School, the elementary school he attended.

"We will make sure these reforms take root and end bullying throughout the CPS system," Gerhardstein said.

On Jan. 24, 2017, a student pushed Gabriel into a wall of a boys’ restroom, the blow knocking Gabriel unconscious for seven minutes. In a school video of the assault, other students stepped over Gabriel. A former assistant principal, Jeffrey McKenzie, found Gabriel but did not call 911. The boy complained of stomach pain and spent several hours at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

He stayed home from school the next day, then on Jan. 26, two other students bullied Gabriel in a Carson restroom and stole his water bottle. That day, he killed himself in his bedroom at his mother's apartment.

"When a kid is being bullied, unconscious on the bathroom floor while kids taunt and kick him, and no one gets help, that is saying something," Ellis said. "Every state has bullying legislation, but if it's not enforced (by schools), it doesn't do any good."

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The Cincinnati plan would identify bullying by tracking repeat offenders, repeat victims and repeat locations. Efforts would be made to intervene with students engaged in bullying to keep it from continuing. School nurses would be empowered to report suspected incidents of bullying.

The settlement involves training and supervising staff and includes two years of oversight of its anti-bullying plan.

Julie Pautsch, who directs a project at Loyola University Chicago School of Law that seeks to prevent bullying in schools nationwide, commended Cincinnati schools for agreeing to the two years of oversight and committing to changes.

Pautsch said many school districts don't track bullying. Investing in the technology and personnel to track incidents is a step in the right direction, Pautsch said.

"It’s not that we can totally prevent (bullying)," she said. "But it’s how the school responds and how they intervene before it becomes so serious that you can’t go back, and then children are harmed.”

Ellis said she'd like to get a closer look at the programs Cincinnati schools are considering. She said she trusts schools to educate kids but not so much when it comes to bullying.

"I hate to sound so cynical, but we have been doing this for 15 years," Ellis told USA TODAY. "Let's see if, after two years, the schools really take this seriously."

Ellis said close, repeated interaction of teachers trained in working with bullies and their targets is needed. It takes time and patience.

The federal lawsuit, filed in 2017, claims that aggressive behavior by students against each other was "rampant" at the school – and that school officials knew about it but covered it up rather than alert parents.

Five months ago, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously rejected the district's motion to dismiss the lawsuit. In its opinion, the court said the alleged actions of the Carson School nurse and administrators were "egregious and clearly reckless."

They "ultimately prevented (Gabriel's) parents from fully understanding (his) horrifying experience at Carson Elementary until it was too late," the court said.

In the settlement, district and school officials deny the allegations "and assert that they have not engaged in any wrongdoing."

Lawyer Aaron Herzig, a partner at the Taft law firm who represented the school district in the case, said a settlement was in everyone's best interest.

"The defendants strongly believe that neither CPS, its employees, nor the school nurse were responsible for the tragic death of Gabriel Taye," Herzig said. "CPS embraces the goal of eliminating bullying within schools, as well as continuing to refine and improve reporting, management and training processes related to incidents of bullying.”

Bacon reported from Arlington, Virginia. Contributing: Madeline Mitchell, Cincinnati Enquirer

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Bullying death of Gabriel Taye leads to change in school policies