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Parents sue Utah school district over son's suicide

Published January 20, 2012 9:14 pm

Sanpete County • Family claims school officials ignored, and even participated in, harassment.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A Utah family who lost their son to suicide two years ago has filed a wrongful-death suit against North Sanpete School District, alleging school officials did nothing to stop years of bullying and even devised a plan to have their son removed from school months before he took his life.

Bradd and Edna Hancock, of Fountain Green, filed the suit in U.S. District court this week, a few days before a two-year period to file such a claim would have expired. Their son Jacob died on Jan. 21, 2010, at age 18. He was a senior at North Sanpete High School in Mt. Pleasant but was not attending school at the time. The lawsuit names not only the school district, but specific employees, the school board and the Sanpete County Sheriff's Office as defendants.

"There is precedence for these sorts of cases across the country. Just because someone takes their own life doesn't mean you can absolve yourself of liability in contributing to that either in whole or in part," said Sonny Olsen, the Provo attorney representing the Hancocks.

Olsen said the district could have offered "meaningful interventions" to the Hancocks, such as separating Jacob from his tormentors or providing him with independent study or an alternative learning program.

Leslie Keisel, superintendent of North Sanpete School District, declined to comment directly on the lawsuit, which is currently being reviewed by the Utah Division of Risk Management. But she noted the district has been working to revive a county-wide task force on youth suicide prevention.

"I hope people would understand that we do not ignore bullying. Bullying is something that we address daily in our schools," said Keisel, who was not superintendent at the time of Jacob's death. "We are very concerned about the effect that bullying has on students."

Jacob played basketball and football at North Sanpete High. But starting as an eighth-grader at North Sanpete Middle, the lawsuit alleges, he experienced repeated harassment by several peers. The students called him anti-gay slurs, beat him up and, in one incident, goaded a special-education student into touching Jacob's genitals in the locker room and urinating on Jacob's towel. Jacob was not gay, Olsen said, but the slurs were meant as hurtful taunts. When the Hancocks complained, the school district's only response was to offer to buy Jacob a new towel, the lawsuit claims.

The harassment continued at North Sanpete High, where one boy threatened, on school grounds, to kill Jacob, the lawsuit alleges. A juvenile court had issued a "no contact order," but the boy continued to follow and harass Jacob. When Jacob called police dispatch to complain, the high school resource officer confronted Jacob and said he would make Jacob's "life hell" if he kept calling the police, the suit alleges.

As a result of the harassment, Jacob suffered mental breakdowns and attempted suicide in 2008. In spring 2009, he had "severe depression, severe emotional outbreaks, [used] foul and abusive language and [acted] in bizarre and difficult ways" at school and there was at least one incident where he was physically restrained by a school resource officer.

As a member of the football team, Jacob experienced hazing from players and coaches, the lawsuit alleges. Teammates got Jacob drunk one night and lit his pants on fire, sending Jacob to the emergency room to treat burns on his legs. The head coach told Jacob he looked like a pedophile in front of the team.

Bradd Hancock confronted school administration about the harassment and the lack of help with Jacob's problems. Two weeks later, the suit claims, the school resource officer "trumped up" allegations of sexual assault against Jacob by pressing female students to accuse the teen. Jacob was arrested by the Sanpete County Sheriff's Office and charged with misdemeanor counts of sexual battery and assault in October 2009. The lawsuit claims the charges were based on "sparse allegations" and one alleged victim later said that Jacob had only tickled her.

Ross Blackham, a Sanpete County prosecutor in the case, said in an interview that the charges were dismissed after Jacob's death, which happened a month before a scheduled jury trial.

"There were allegations made," Blackham said. "I believe there was evidence to support the charges so that's why the charges were filed."

The lawsuit seeks punitive and financial damages for the loss of Jacob's life, companionship and financial support he would have contributed to his parents. It also seeks to recover funeral and burial expenses.

rwinters@sltrib.com