I-Team: Families call for schools to track student suicides

CINCINNATI -- Janie Adkins is trying to make sense of how a new school year is starting without her 14-year-old grandson. 

"For his mom, this was her only child, and she is watching other children and parents going to school," she said.

Adkins' grandson, Fairfield Middle School student Logan Davidson, killed himself last March. 

MORE: Despite changes at Fairfield Middle School, two more students are dead from suicide

Logan didn't know 8-year-old Carson Elementary School student Gabriel Taye, but their cases are similar. Gabriel killed himself 38 days earlier. Their families believe both boys were bullied and used suicide as an escape.

Ohio law requires schools to track bullying and to train teachers in suicide prevention, but does not require schools track student suicides. Now, the two families of boys who killed themselves want that law changed. 

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for people between the ages of 10 and 24 in Ohio, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Psychologists say bullying doesn't cause suicide, though they do share a link. 

Currently, schools are required to develop a policy that prohibits bullying, investigate all reports of bullying, notify parents and track all bullying reports. Yet, there is no oversight in making those reports.

Gabriel's family is suing the board of education. The lawsuit alleges Gabriel was bullied for months before he killed himself and that the school knew but did nothing to stop it. 

Jennifer Branch is representing the family in its federal lawsuit.

"In this case, it was necessary because we still don't have answers to a lot of the parents' questions," Branch said. "What was happening to Gabe? What was the school doing to protect him? Why weren't they telling the parents what was happening?"

A school surveillance video is the primary piece of evidence in that lawsuit. Gabriel's family members say school administrators didn't immediately tell them he collapsed inside a boy's bathroom after he was possibly attacked by a classmate. He lay unconscious on the floor for seven minutes. They say the video appears to show other students kicking him. 

Gabriel took his own life two days later.

"The school district hid information from his family, and because they didn't have that information, Gabe was in greater danger of being bullied and greater danger of being at risk of suicide from the bullying because nobody was helping him," Branch said. 

Cincinnati Public Schools officials can't discuss the Taye lawsuit. A district spokeswoman told the I-Team in May the video does not show other students beating Gabriel. They see no link between bullying and his suicide.

In Logan Davidson's case, Adkins said she learned he was bullied from his friends on the day of his memorial. 

Adkins wants school districts to track student suicides the same way they are already required to track reports of bullying. 

"I do believe he would have said something to someone, whether it be another child or an adult," she said. "He would have said something to someone there."

Adkins also wants the state to require anti-suicide education in schools.

Barry Feldman, a professor at the University of Massachusetts and an expert in youth suicide, also thinks education is key.

"Schools need to have comprehensive suicide prevention programs where they can focus on prevention-related activities, intervention," he said. "In other words, what do you do when there's a student you're concerned about?"

Feldman also believes families need to step up and have tough conversations.

"Maybe the child was depressed or anxious or struggling with things in their lives," he said. "Being the target of bullying can isolate individuals."

Relatives of both Gabriel and Logan said they saw no indications their boys were bullied or that they were in so much pain.

"His saying was always, 'Mamaw, don't worry about me,'" Adkins said.

They want other parents to take Feldman's advice and get involved until the bullying law is strengthened. 

"Talk to the school. Ask questions. Demand answers to your questions," Feldman said. "And don't assume that the school is going to tell you when your child is in danger."

Here are some resources for talking to children about bullying and suicide prevention:

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (Cincinnati chapter)

Centers for Disease Control bullying research

CDC report: "The relationship between bullying and suicide"

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

StopBullying.gov

NOBullying.com statistics

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