When Cornelia Reynolds found her 8-year-old son, Gabriel Taye, had killed himself after coming home from school on Jan. 26, 2017, she started CPR and called 911. Paramedics attempted to revive the boy, but he had no pulse.
As they took her child away, Reynolds screamed through her tears, “Why Gabe? Why baby? Why did you do it?”
That question is at the crux of a lawsuit filed by Gabriel’s parents against Cincinnati Public Schools and Carson Elementary School officials, the family’s attorney, Jennifer Branch, said during a court hearing Wednesday. The family has accused school officials of covering up the violence and bullying that Gabriel faced on multiple occasions — actions his family said make the school responsible for the boy's death.
“These parents had no idea what was going on at Carson Elementary School,” Branch told a panel of judges in the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. They had “no idea how dangerous his third-grade school was,” she said.
Gabriel loved to dress up for school and wear neckties. The 8-year-old loved to sing and dance, fish with his mother, and play games with his father. He was a smart boy who earned good grades, his parents said.
They didn't know that two days before his death, Gabriel had been attacked by a student in the boys bathroom and that he had lain unconscious on the floor for seven minutes while other students walked by, mocking and kicking him, according to Branch and surveillance video of the incident.
The school did not call 911 and waited for more than an hour to call Reynolds, only to tell her that Gabriel had “fainted” and that his “vitals were fine,” the lawsuit alleged. School officials have said they responded appropriately to incidents and could not have known that Gabriel would go on to harm himself.
After what happened in the bathroom, Gabriel told his mother that all he could remember was that he fell and hurt his stomach. She took him to the hospital after he vomited and kept him home the next day.
But on Jan. 26, 2017, she sent him back to school, a “decision she would never had made if she had only known about the attack” in the unsupervised boys' bathroom, the lawsuit said.
When Gabriel went to the boys' bathroom that day, two students stole his water bottle and tried to flush it down the toilet. He reported the incident to a teacher, who was not aware of the previous assault on Gabriel and “did not recognize the seriousness of this incident,” the lawsuit said.
That evening, Gabriel returned home from school and killed himself.
School officials knew that Carson was a “violent school” and that Gabriel was a victim of bullying and other “aggressive behavior” since he was a 5-year-old in first grade, Branch told the judges. They knew that he was a victim of "aggressive behavior" in at least six incidents during the third grade, but they only notified his mother about three, the lawsuit alleged.
“They also know that bullying can lead to suicide,” Branch said, citing the school’s bullying policy that notes suicide is a known risk of bullying.
School officials “covered up” the bullying and aggressive behavior that students, including Gabriel, experienced at Carson Elementary School, the lawsuit said. They hid information from Gabriel’s parents about the extent of the bullying he received as well as the bathroom attack recorded on camera, according to the lawsuit.
“Had Gabe’s parents known the dangers Gabe faced at Carson, they would not have continued to send him to school there,” the lawsuit said.
The school has argued that Gabriel did not suffer from a “pervasive pattern” of bullying because none of the six alleged incidents he was involved in “shared any pattern” or showed “repeated run-ins with the same student.” The school also argued that its officials were “attentive and responsive” to Gabriel and punished students who allegedly bullied him.
The 6th Circuit Court judges will now decide whether to affirm a trial court’s refusal to dismiss the wrongful death lawsuit that Gabriel’s parents filed against the school district in 2017.
Aaron Herzig, an attorney for the school’s administrators, argued Wednesday that the school officials did not act recklessly and that they should be immune from liability in Gabriel’s death.
Ruthenia Jackson, Carson’s principal, and Jeffrey McKenzie, the assistant principal, “acted just as you would want school administrators to act,” Herzig said.
Holding them liable for a student killing themself would open “whole new vistas of liability for schools in Ohio and throughout the circuit,” he said.
“We of course understand that 8-year-olds in a school are going to get into scraps from time to time, and they are going to misbehave from time to time,” Herzig said. Ohio law states that “student-on-student violence is not something that can be policed to zero by school officials,” he said.
Herzig argued that the allegations in the lawsuit did not show that Jackson and McKenzie should have known that Gabriel “would have been at substantial risk of suicide.”
“There was no conscious disregard of a known risk [of suicide] because it is not every act of violence among two students that leads to suicide,” Herzig said.
He said that Jackson and McKenzie could not have foreseen that Gabriel would have killed himself because the child had never had suicidal ideations or expressed that he was depressed.
But Branch, the lawyer for the boy's family, said that school officials should be sued “if they’re lying to parents.”
“Because the parents trust them to take care of their children,” she said.
The surveillance video of the bathroom incident two days before Gabriel’s death showed that a student was attacking other boys in the bathroom.
When Gabe entered, he appeared to extend his hand to the attacker. The student grabbed Gabriel’s hand and yanked him toward the wall, the lawsuit said. Gabriel’s head struck something and he collapsed on the floor. The video showed that the other student appeared to celebrate his “takedown” of Gabriel, the lawsuit said.
More than a dozen students passed Gabriel lying unconscious on the floor, appearing to mock and kick him, showing the “environment of tolerance of bullying and aggression at Carson,” the lawsuit said.
The assistant principal, McKenzie, later appeared in the video looking over Gabriel. Instead of checking his breathing or helping him, McKenzie was “just standing there waiting for other people to come,” Branch said in court.
After the school nurse arrived, Gabriel regained consciousness. Branch said that McKenzie and the nurse did not follow the school’s policy to call 911 after a student has been unconscious for more than a minute.
More than an hour later, the nurse called Reynolds and told her Gabriel had “fainted,” “was alert,” and his “vitals [were] fine,” the lawsuit said. When Reynolds asked if her son needed to go to the hospital, she was told that he did not need further medical treatment, the lawsuit alleged.
The school district had previously said that it was “concerned” about the amount of time Gabriel was motionless and the lack of adult supervision, but added that the school administrators “immediately followed protocol” by calling the school nurse.
Cincinnati police and prosecutors did not file criminal charges in connection to Gabriel’s death. The Hamilton County Coroner, who reopened the investigation into Gabriel’s death after the school released the video, ended the investigation without adding anything to the original cause of suicide, WCPO reported.
“Until she gave birth to Gabe, Cornelia Reynolds had no idea how much love she had to give,” the lawsuit said. “Her life is empty without her only child, her best friend.”