Bullying from students, coach, principals led to teen's suicide, family claims in lawsuit

Published: Monday, Jan. 30 2012 5:30 p.m. MST

MT. PLEASANT, Sanpete County — The family of a Sanpete County teenager who committed suicide in 2010 is suing their son's school district for wrongful death, alleging negligence and harassment on the part of district officials.

Bradd and Edna Hancock filed the suit in federal court in Salt Lake City earlier this month on behalf of their son, Jacob. In it, they name the North Sanpete School District, the North Sanpete School Board, Sanpete County Sheriff Brian Nielson, and various district, school and school board officials.

The boy was harassed and bullied beginning in the eighth grade, when he was called various names and assaulted by a group of high school students, the lawsuit claims. The middle school principal said all students involved would be referred to juvenile court, but the Hancocks say they were told that if their son was involved in another altercation, he would be the one who was expelled.

"(Jacob) now had no way out of the situation or how to escape the bullying," the lawsuit states.

The teenagers continued to harass Jacob for 1 ½ years "and the school district did not take any significant measures to stop the bullying and harassment," the family claims. The boy's health declined, prompting him to lash out at others, suffer a mental breakdown and be placed on suicide watch.

"(Jacob) feared for his mental and physical safety each time he went to school and the school district was indifferent to these experiences and allowed them to continue," according to the lawsuit

When the boy entered North Sanpete High School in ninth grade, the harassment worsened, with one student repeatedly telling Jacob that he was going to kill him, the lawsuit states. When the Hancocks brought this to the attention of school principal John Erickson, Erickson allegedly said the teens should fight because that's how things were settled in the past.

"Again, the school district's handling of the harassment and bullying was to sweep it under the rug and pretend like it would just go away," the family says in the suit.

At a certain point, the teen began to have difficulties sleeping and became "increasingly agitated and he was fearful for his life." The lawsuit claims the school district's solution to the problem was to allow it to go on until the boy was suicidal, including a 2008 attempt of which the school district was aware.

By 2009, the boy joined the football team as an outlet for his fears and anxiety, but the football coach told the entire team that Jacob "looked like a pedophile" and demeaned the then-junior in front of everybody, according to the lawsuit.

The coaches also encouraged hazing, leading to an incident where other team members got Jacob drunk and lit his pants on fire, prompting a trip to the emergency room. Eventually, the boy's father confronted officials, who decided the teen needed to leave the district. Soon after, the school resource officer accused Jacob of sexual assault and coerced teenage girls into saying Jacob assaulted them, the lawsuit states.

The Hancocks said the accusations were "trumped up and unfounded" and that all the girls admitted nothing had happened. They allege that the school failed to investigate, instead expelling the boy — a move they said made it so other schools wouldn't accept their son as a student.

On Jan. 21, 2010, the boy took his own life.

"The harassment of Jacob was in plain sight, occurring in hallways and other common areas, classes, during breaks, on the school buses and was widespread and well known to students and staff. "

The family claims the behavior of the district and its employees was "malicious" and amounted to intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence and wrongful death. They are asking for general and special damages, reimbursement of medical expenses, damages for Jacob's emotional distress, punitive damages and attorney fees.

North Sanpete School District Superintendent Leslie Keisel said an attorney has been assigned to the case. She said bullying and suicide prevention are taught to students in the district starting in elementary school.

"Bullying has always been addressed in our schools," Keisel said. "There are policies in place and those policies are followed by our administrators. Our administrators are trained to address complaints as they come to them."

As for the alleged behavior of school employees and officials, Keisel said: "We are very anxious to respond to those allegations and that will be in the courtroom."

Prosecutor Ross Blackham said investigators determined there was sufficient evidence to charge Jacob Hancock with three misdemeanors in connection with the assault and battery.

"If (the case) hadn't been shuttled some way out of court, it would have gone to trial," he said.

E-mail: emorgan@desnews.com, Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam

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