Editor’s note • This article discusses suicide. If you or people you know are at risk of self-harm, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24-hour support at 1-800-273-8255.
The death of a 10-year-old Black girl by suicide over the weekend has led family and community members to demand a response from her Utah school district, where they say her concerns about bullying were repeatedly ignored.
The girl’s mom, Brittany Tichenor-Cox, said Monday that she had reached out to Davis School District several times to talk about how Isabella — or “Izzy,” as she affectionally called her — was being treated by both classmates and her teacher. Through tears, Tichenor-Cox recounted that the intense abuse of her daughter for being Black and autistic was allowed to continue without intervention.
“Even though my baby is gone, I’m going to make sure I stand for Izzy,” Tichenor-Cox said, with sobs shaking her small frame. “I will never get to see her again … I will never … She was 10 years old. She was only 10,” she said before burying her face on the table during a news conference.
Izzy, who was in fifth grade, died Saturday. Her mom, aunt and grandmother spoke out Monday, along with several in the Black community in Utah, about the tragedy — which they see as part of a larger pattern of harassment and discrimination.
They sat and cried together in front of the playground in North Salt Lake where Izzy used to love to dance and jump around.
Izzy’s death comes about two weeks after the U.S. Department of Justice issued a scathing report from a lengthy investigation into Davis School District’s serious mishandling of reports of racism there.
Investigators found that district administrators intentionally ignored “serious and widespread” racial harassment in its schools for years — failing to respond to hundreds of reports from Black students after they have been called slaves, the N-word, and heard threats that they would be lynched.
A few kids of color said they felt the predominantly white school district in northern Utah was condoning the way they were treated by taking no action, even when teachers directly witnessed discrimination. Some employees, they added, participated in it.
Tichenor-Cox said she believes her daughter’s case that started this fall was handled with callousness and disregard — even after those findings became public and the district promised change.
Davis School District issued a statement Monday saying it was working “extensively with the family” to resolve the case and “will continue to provide help to them and others impacted by this tragedy.”
“We, like everyone, are devastated by the death of this child,” the district said. “We take all incidents and reports of bullying seriously. At this point, the incident we are aware of involved another student. The teacher and administration responded quickly and appropriately. As with all allegations of bullying, our investigation will continue.”
Calling the district
Several in the community said they felt the district’s statement was misleading and that officials never stepped in with Izzy’s concerns — or when they knew about cases before that.
“I don’t think they’re listening,” said Darlene McDonald, an activist with seats on the Utah Black Roundtable and the Utah Educational Equity Coalition. “Their colorblindness is causing the death of our children.”
Kathleen Christy, a retired administrator with Salt Lake City School District and now a leader of the Utah Ethnic Studies Coalition, added: “The situation is of grave concern to all of us in our community.”
She said, “The biggest issue is that the district just hasn’t addressed anything, racist incidents and bullying. They just don’t respond to it.”
Shortly after the school year started, Tichenor-Cox said, she had asked Izzy how things were going. She recalls her daughter saying that she didn’t think her teacher liked her. Tichenor-Cox recounted that Izzy then said: “She doesn’t say ‘hi’ to me. She says ‘hi’ to all the other kids.”
Tichenor-Cox called the school and never got an answer.
Following that, Tichenor-Cox said the teacher told the class that the students smelled bad. She believes the teacher specifically targeted Izzy with the comment because several kids specifically responded by threatening Izzy on the playground and telling her she stunk because of her skin color.
Tichenor-Cox said that in response Izzy took a bottle of air freshener to school to wear as perfume. The mom cried. Again, she called the school district. This time, she said, she got a hold of the teacher directly.
“I’m not going to work it out for them,” she said the teacher told her. “I let them work it out.”
Again, after that, Izzy told her mom that she asked the teacher for help and the teacher told Izzy to sit down, that she didn’t want to deal with her. Kids taunted her, too, for her disability, the girl told her mom. She said they called her names and made fun of the way she looked.
Tichenor-Cox said she talked to the principal and vice principal. They told her they would handle it. She doesn’t believe anything happened.
The mom said no one in the district has reached out to her since her daughter died. And Izzy, she added, isn’t the only one who has faced it. Tichenor-Cox has other children in the district. She said she has made similar reports when they have been called the N-word and other names.
“This is enough,” she said, wiping her eyes. “My kids shouldn’t suffer.” She broke down again. “When you call the district multiple times …”
Before Izzy died, she said, they were going to start working on a book report together. Tichenor-Cox could tell she was stressed; everything about school made her stressed. But she told her mom she was the best “in the whole wide world.”
“That was the last thing she said to me,” Tichenor-Cox said.
The family has hired an attorney. But Tichenor-Cox said they’re currently focused on mourning Izzy and helping her siblings to cope. They have started a GoFundMe to raise money for the funeral.
‘More needs to be done’
Other Black parents in Utah echoed Tichenor-Cox, saying their children have also been bullied, in Davis particularly, and that it needs to stop.
Michelle Love-Day, a member of the Utah Ethnic Studies Coalition and founder of RISE Academy that specifically focuses on Black students learning Black history, called on Black and Brown families to speak up at school board meetings and “match the energy there” from conservative and white families who have been pushing against teaching about race in the classroom.
“We follow protocol all the time and go to the principals, we sit in the offices repeating the same thing every week,” she said in a post on social media. “Well, more needs to be done.”
McDonald, whose two Black sons attended school in Utah, said she is frustrated that districts here and the Utah Legislature have been hyperfocused on Critical Race Theory, which isn’t being taught in Utah, instead of looking into the actual problem of harassment and discrimination of students of color that is happening. That is having a direct impact on kids.
“What’s real is what caused this young girl’s death,” she said. “The real problem is being ignored.”
The Utah Black Roundtable, McDonald added, brought concerns to Davis School District in 2019. And others say they reported issues before that; many say they were never addressed. The DOJ report bolsters that.
McDonald said Black families have also been pushing for schools to discuss diversity to help all students understand how to be kind and to hopefully address bullying. She said those requests have similarly been brushed aside on a state level, with one member of the Utah Board of Education trying to eliminate the word “empathy” from curriculum altogether.
Her older son, she said, “faced being the butt of Black jokes” when he was in class. And her younger son, she said, is autistic, like Izzy. It’s an issue all school districts in the state need to address, with discrimination of race and disability, she added.
Tomoya Averett, 22, said she was discriminated against when she attended school at Davis School District.
She was called the N-word and told by white students that “God hates Black people; that’s why their skin is dark.” She was 16 at the time and called it relentless.
“At this point, there needs to be some kind of reckoning,” Averett said. “These district administrators have been negligent for so long, and people are losing lives.”
She called on Davis to hire more faculty of color and administrators of color. She also urged the district to create an office where students can go and feel comfortable reporting their concerns. The DOJ has mandated that Davis do that in the coming months.
“It’s so horrible,” Averett added. “That’s their one job as educators, to care and to listen.”
Averett works for Stand for the Silent, a nonprofit that addresses suicide and bullying and is focusing now on aiding students of color in Utah, she said.
It’s uncommon for kids ages 10 and younger to die by suicide. But the American Psychological Association said in a recent report that an average of 33 deaths between the ages of 5 to 11 occur per year in the United States. And there is concern it could be becoming more prevalent, with added pressure from the pandemic.
The American Psychological Association generally cautions against drawing a direct conclusion about what caused a child to die by suicide, including bullying. But it does acknowledge that, more than adults, those kind of circumstantial factors can generally have a higher impact.
The report states: “Compared to adults, children and adolescents with suicidal behaviors seem to be driven more by circumstantial factors, such as family discord, social failure or bullying.”
It urges parents to watch for warning signs of depression, such as withdrawing or feeling sad, and to talk to their kids about what is happening in school.
Tichenor-Cox said Monday that she often talked to her daughter and wishes the school district would have stepped in to correct the behavior from other students and staff.
Izzy’s aunt and grandma recalled how bright the young girl was, how much she loved to smile and play in the water. She loved being a big sister and considered her mom her best friend.
“She was proud of being Isabella,” said Pauletta Harris, her grandma.
Aunt Jasmine Rhodes talked about how the last time she saw Izzy, the 10-year-old ran up to her and slammed her with a hug that was outsized compared to how small the girl was. She loved to give love, she said.
Tichenor-Cox said she will miss her little girl and is devastated by the loss. The mother said: “I’m going to make sure that this will never happen again.”