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Izzy Tichenor faced ‘offensive’ treatment from teachers who didn’t understand bullying, Davis review team finds

The 10-year-old Black girl died by suicide in November, which her mom attributes to the harassment.

(Tichenor family) Pictured is Isabella "Izzy" Tichenor in this undated family photo.

A teacher told Izzy Tichenor — in front of her classmates — that the 10-year-old Black girl smelled and needed to take a shower.

Another educator openly used “offensive gestures” to refer to Izzy after the fifth grader died by suicide last fall. That same educator had been disciplined months earlier for participating in a racist conversation with other teachers.

And not one member of the staff at Izzy’s school, Foxboro Elementary in northern Utah, knew the standard definition for bullying.

These findings come from a recently released review of the harassment Izzy faced in Davis School District. And it sheds new light on the school environment that the girl was learning in before her death, while her mother tried to report discrimination she was facing from her peers and some faculty.

The independent team members hired by the district to look into how Izzy was treated ultimately concluded that they did not have enough evidence to say that Izzy was bullied specifically because she was Black and autistic, as her mother has alleged and has said led her daughter to die by suicide.

But the team members do note several times where staff acted inappropriately, adding to the girl’s hurt when they lacked understanding and empathy and failed to document the reports of harassment that Izzy did experience — largely around hygiene — until after she had died.

The investigators also acknowledged that the school fostered an atmosphere “in which bullying, on any ground, could go underreported, uninvestigated and unaddressed.”

Their report, which was completed early last week but not released until late Friday before the district emptied for its spring break, likely won’t be the final word in the case that has drawn attention and criticism from across the state and country. Several community members denounced the findings this week, calling them disappointing and suggesting the review team missed the point.

“This has got to just be even more traumatizing after everything,” said Darlene McDonald, an activist with the Utah Black Roundtable.

The district said it has looked over the report and is “taking it seriously.”

The attorney representing the Tichenors, Tyler Ayres, declined to comment for this story, and he and Brittany Tichenor-Cox, Izzy’s mom, did not participate in the independent review.

They have previously called out the actions of the predominantly white district, noting that how Izzy was treated came after Davis had already been chastised by the U.S. Department of Justice for allowing “serious and widespread” racism to go unchecked in its schools.

The independent review of Izzy’s case doesn’t mention that federal intervention, but it does acknowledge that her family was failed by the school brushing off at least one report of harassment against Izzy and not investigating properly.

“Foxboro dismissed and failed to timely document her concern,” the 16-page executive report states. “As a result, Foxboro failed to conduct the investigation that Izzy was due and deserved.”

The team recommends extensive training among educators at the school to help them understand bullying and diversity and to fix the lack of empathy that it says contributed to their harmful attitudes to the girl and her family.

Reported bullying

Tichenor-Cox has said that she had reached out to Davis School District several times last fall to talk about how her daughter was being harassed by both classmates and teachers. But, she said, she was ignored.

She said she was concerned when Izzy recounted that her teacher told the class that students smelled bad. Izzy explained to her mom, Tichenor-Cox said, that she felt the teacher was targeting her because after the comment several kids specifically responded by threatening Izzy on the playground and telling her she stunk because of her skin color.

Izzy died by suicide in November, which Tichenor-Cox attributed to that and other bullying.

(Rick Bowmer | AP) Brittany Tichenor-Cox, holds a photo of her daughter, Isabella "Izzy" Tichenor, during an interview Monday, Nov. 29, 2021, in Draper, Utah.

The three-person review team confirmed three reports by Tichenor-Cox, which were documented by the school — but only after Izzy had died. The team’s report notes: “In significant part, Foxboro did not create an official record of the allegations until months after the purported incidents.”

The first was reported to have happened on Sept. 2, 2021, when the mom said Izzy’s sister was called names. Both Izzy and her sister, according to the investigators, were called in to talk to administrators and said the encounter apparently had not happened recently.

The second report was made on the following day, when Tichenor-Cox called to say the same student allegedly told Izzy and her young siblings that he had a gun and threatened them.

Foxboro Elementary staff told the review team that they spoke with teachers and reviewed surveillance. But they did not search the student’s backpack until three days later. They were unable to substantiate the allegations.

And the third report from Tichenor-Cox came one week later. The mom said that the same student called Izzy’s sister the N-word and touched her. Again, the school said it reviewed surveillance footage and could not confirm the reported assault.

But administrators did conclude it was “more likely than not” that the assault occurred, so they suspended the student and had him sign a contract to not contact any of the Tichenor kids. He was also not allowed to eat breakfast in the school cafeteria, and the Tichenor siblings were told to take a certain route home to avoid him.

The team also notes there was one report of a student making fun of Izzy for her hygiene. But the team said it did not have the authority to review that case because its charge was specifically to look at whether the girl was harassed based on race or disability.

A lack of records

The investigators said that limited access did somewhat hamper their review. They acknowledged that the comments in the hygiene case could have been general, based on the family’s financial situation, for which the school was providing support. Or the comments could have intersected with race or disability. The team noted it can be hard to “extricate one from the others.”

But based on the information it did have — which included the other reports, 2,600 pages of personal records and 47 interviews — it could not concretely say that Izzy was bullied for her race or for having autism.

In fact, the reviewers note that Izzy was still being assessed by the school when she died. And the school didn’t have an official diagnosis of autism from a doctor in her file.

The team also said that the district promised to provide an expert in autism to help in the investigation. Members said they say they are unaware of that person ever being hired and made available.

The investigators conclude that with the limitations, they believe Izzy was bullied about hygiene. The only evidence they have of racial harassment, though, targeted her sister. McDonald questions that conclusion, though, especially if the name calling also happened in front of Izzy.

(Tichenor family) Pictured is 10-year-old Isabella "Izzy" Tichenor in this undated family photo.

About a month after Izzy’s sister was called the N-word, the school apparently reached out to the district about possibly conducting an investigation. But it didn’t identify the Tichenor family at that time or note there were multiple calls.

“If the district had been alerted to Mrs. Tichenor-Cox’s concerns sooner, the district could have investigated the allegations and taken corrective action against the perpetrator sooner,” the review adds.

Interactions with staff

The reviewers noted they were troubled by how several teachers talked about Izzy during their investigation. Izzy’s teacher in the special education program at Foxboro Elementary specifically said she recounted telling Izzy in front of her classmates that she smelled bad and should bathe.

The teacher then, though, suggested to the review team that she doubted Izzy would even have understood what she was saying because of her “educational delays.”

Team members countered that, saying in their report that they found the teacher’s conduct “problematic.”

“It was apparent to the team that Izzy understood and internalized comments about her hygiene, despite claims that Izzy likely could not because of her disabilities,” they said.

They also said that making those comments in front of other students likely could have led to Izzy’s classmates also making fun of her, or could have made Izzy scared to report what was happening and left her feeling like it was condoned by those in charge.

Another teacher also acknowledged that she told Izzy’s entire class that they smelled, which Tichenor-Cox had reported. The review team notes that the teacher told the mom that she had made comments like before and would not stop.

Additionally, a person who appears to be a third teacher identified in the report is noted to have used “offensive gestures” to talk about Izzy after her suicide.

The report notes: “She refused to acknowledge that her behavior was offensive and refused to sign another letter of discipline that Foxboro administration placed in her personnel file.”

That same educator had previously received a letter in her file for using racist language with two other teachers at the school. All three were instructed to apologize to the people they offended and undergo diversity training. The review team notes there is no evidence they completed those requirements.

The cases, though, echo what the U.S. Department of Justice found in its investigation of Davis School District, where is said administrators and teacher ignored reports of racism and sometimes participated in it themselves.

Three classmates and one employee declined to be interviewed. The report does not note what position that employee held and how much the person interacted with Izzy.

None of the staff interviewed by the team knew the district’s definition of bullying: A school employee or student intentionally committing a written, verbal or physical act against another person that causes emotional harm, physical damage or fear, or creates a hostile environment.

Some of the staff thought bullying had to be repeated to count; so one teacher, the review notes, dismissed the comment made by another student to Izzy on hygiene because it happened once. Others relied on their own definitions and what they felt was morally wrong, the report states.

One educator told the team that she wanted her students to be tough and not taught to be “victims.” She said she encouraged those bullied to let hurtful comments “roll off [their] back.”

“Ultimately, the Tichenor family suffered as a result of the District’s failure to ensure that all educators understand and appreciate what bullying is,” the reviewers wrote. “Such lack of awareness regarding district policy and inconsistent understanding of the policy and its definitions can result in arbitrary reporting — or worse, a failure to receive and respond to allegations of bullying.”

Recommendations and reaction

The three investigators — Brian Garlock, Abigail Dizon-Maughan and Michelle Love-Day — recommended training for faculty and staff on recognizing bullying and how to stop it, as well as how to keep accurate records on cases.

And there should be lessons on empathy, poverty, trauma, disabilities, diversity and equity, the reviewers said. Had teachers had more knowledge about those topics, they believe, their attitudes might have been different and more understanding of what Izzy was going through.

Davis School District released a statement saying, “We vow to continue our ongoing and extensive efforts to foster a welcoming environment for all students in the Davis School District.” And it added continued “heartfelt condolences” for the Tichenor family.

McDonald said she felt the report was predictable, especially with the limitations. But she wishes it had gone further.

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Darlene McDonald speaks during a rally at the Wallace F. Bennett Federal Building in Salt Lake City Thursday, May 4, 2017.

For example, she said, there is a historical context for Black people being told they smell, with racial connotations inherent in the hurtful remark. “When you look at it just from a hygiene standpoint, you miss this other part,” she said.

She said she trusted the work of the committee, especially that of Love-Day, a member of the Utah Ethnic Studies Coalition and founder of RISE Academy, which focuses on Black students learning Black history. But she wonders if it would have been better if Love-Day wasn’t the only Black member.

Rae Duckworth, leader of the Utah chapter of Black Lives Matter, similarly noted about the results: “We are disappointed but not surprised.”

McDonald said she hopes recommendations for improvements are followed.

“As a community, as a state, as people of color,” she said, “we must look at this and ask how we don’t keep going through this year after year after year.”

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