CINCINNATI -- The region’s largest public school system has made major changes to how it deals with bullying over the past year.
Cincinnati Public Schools Superintendent Laura Mitchell can rattle them off: There's now a button on the district's website, front and center, to report bullying. Teachers and staff get more intensive training. The district hired a social worker with a background in stress management.
All those came after Gabriel Taye took his own life in January 2017. The 8-year-old was a student at Carson Elementary in West Price Hill. On his final day at school, he spent seven minutes unconscious on a bathroom floor, and surveillance footage shows other students appearing to kick him as he lay helpless.
Not one of the district's top leaders has said much about the case.
Mitchell took over as superintendent in July, a month before Gabriel's family filed a wrongful death lawsuit. In a lengthy interview with the I-Team last month, she made her first public comments about Gabriel, but she stopped short of saying his death influenced the changes CPS has made.
To Jennifer Branch, an attorney for Gabriel’s family, those changes aren't enough. She argues there's another problem: The district lacks transparency. Without it, Branch thinks parents still won’t be able to hold CPS accountable.
'Your son fainted'
Mitchell is no stranger to Cincinnati Public Schools or what happened with Gabriel Taye: She spent 12 years as the district's deputy superintendent before her promotion.
When CPS released surveillance footage of the bathroom incident last March, the district said it determined no one had bullied Gabriel that day.
His family's lawsuit says otherwise. Their attorney has said a student was threatening and assaulting other boys before he slammed Gabriel into a wall.
Gabriel was dead two days later. His mother found him hanging from a necktie in his bedroom.
School officials have said Gabriel fainted. Mitchell wouldn't comment specifically on what happened.
"What I can say is that we would hope in any situation if a student is incapacitated, is lying on the ground, is hurt, that it would be immediately reported to an adult so that it could be addressed as quickly as possible," she said.
The lawsuit, however, accuses school officials of engaging in a cover-up once they responded to the bathroom and found Gabriel unconscious. It also accuses them of failing to investigate or document the incident, or report it to his parents.
Gabriel's mother and father didn't learn about what happened that day until long after his death, Branch said.
"'Your son fainted.' That's all they said: 'Your son fainted.' And later that night, when he was throwing up and (his mother) took him to Children's Hospital, she had no idea that he had lost consciousness for seven minutes," Branch said.
'This is a societal issue'
Reports of bullying nationwide and in Greater Cincinnati showed a need for CPS to pay closer attention to the issue, Mitchell said.
Asked if Gabriel's death is included in that, Mitchell said it left a "deep sense of loss" and "rocked our entire community."
She wouldn't say Gabriel was bullied.
"I would say we look at that information, and we take it into consideration because, again, it's a very serious situation and something that was life-changing for the family and the school," Mitchell said. "So, we consider all of the cases that have impacted the school district in this way."
According to the district's court filing, Gabriel's case is different from other bullying-related suicide cases where administrators have been liable. CPS argued Gabriel was not targeted by taunting, threats or violence.The district also claimed school officials did not ignore or encourage bullying.
Gabriel’s family argues he was the victim of escalating aggression, which their lawsuit says included punching and shoving by the third grade. In some cases, Gabriel got in trouble for fighting back. This is a statement from the lawsuit:
"During third grade, Gabe was the victim of at least six incidents of aggressive student behavior. CPS Defendants did not notify his parents of three of these aggressive incidents. While CPS Defendants did notify his mother of three of these incidents, they withheld critical information that was needed in order for his mother to protect him from further harm.”
Those six incidents "do not share any pattern or even show repeated run-ins with the same student," the district's stated in its response. Under Ohio law, bullying isn't considered bullying until a student is targeted by the same person more than once.
To Branch, that's a distinction without a difference.
"For a student who's feeling threatened and intimidated, it doesn't matter if it’s the same person doing it to them or many people doing it to them because it’s still the same fear,” she said.
Mitchell said the district needs to know about bullying to deal with it. That's where she said the website button helps. She also believes staff training that is customized for each school will help. The district knows the highest amounts of bullying happen at certain schools, so does it occur at a specific time at a given school day? Or in a specific place? That might help school leaders determine if they need more structured activities.
CPS has looked at spending an hour a week with students in third through sixth grades to develop their emotional and social skills.
Under new guidelines, the district will notify families of all students involved in reports of bullying even before the school district determines if a report is valid -- something Gabriel's family claims never happened in that case.
Ultimately, however, Mitchell doesn't believe every solution will come from the district: It also falls on the community and families.
"It isn’t a school-based problem," she said. "Bullying is really a societal problem."
Complaints about a lack of transparency
Mitchell wants parents to know about the measures CPS has taken to deal with bullying and what they should expect from their children's schools, and she said she wants parents to hold the district accountable to those expectations.
Branch argues that's only possible if CPS is forthright about what happens, something she and Gabriel's family are still waiting for. The fact Gabriel's mother wasn't told he'd been unconscious for seven minutes shows CPS isn't transparent, Branch said.
She alleges the district hasn't turned over records about Gabriel being bullied, despite public records requests.
"Prior to litigation, I think the answer was, 'We're working on it,'" Branch said. "And they're still working on it."
CPS also hasn't provided a copy of the bathroom surveillance footage showing the students’ faces, Branch said. Although she thinks children's identities should be protected in general, "not to the extent that you cover up what's happening in the school."
The district denies there was any coverup. According to Mitchell, CPS has provided what it's legally able to provide. Federal and state student privacy laws say a parent should have access to everything in their child’s school records. But there are some exceptions, including records with information about other students.
"It's hard to go into too much detail because there is a case regarding this issue," Mitchell said.
CPS has asked a federal judge to dismiss the lawsuit from Gabriel's family. It could be spring before that's decided. If the judge denies CPS's request, the case would move forward.
That also would likely force the district to turn over documents so Gabriel's family can learn more about bullying incidents that happened before his death.