When a bullied Utah girl dies by suicide, it can’t just be a passing tragedy, Tribune Editorial Board writes

Full and open examination of Davis School District leadership is critical.

(Tichenor family) Pictured is Isabella Tichenor, who died by suicide on Nov. 6, 2021.

Isabella Tichenor must not be forgotten.

And to make sure she is not forgotten, the circumstances that led a 10-year-old to take her own life must be investigated and publicly accounted for.

Izzy’s mother, Brittany Tichenor-Cox, says she repeatedly reached out to her Davis County elementary school to address the bullying that Izzy, a Black child on the autism spectrum, said she was facing constantly. But the mother never saw evidence that anyone at the school ever interceded on Izzy’s behalf.

Schools are the touchstone to society for families. Social development is every bit as important as academic achievement, and every child deserves to be nurtured and protected. The apparent failure to do that in this case brought Izzy to what is an unthinkable conclusion for a fourth grader. She decided she had to end the pain because no one else would.

Even before Izzy’s death, enough has happened to raise the question of leadership in Davis School District. Under the current superintendent’s watch, the district was found to ignore “serious and widespread” racial harassment in its schools for years, according to a two-year U.S. Justice Department investigation detailed last month.

Among the misdeeds, the investigation found that Davis administrators repeatedly ignored or dismissed student reports of racial harassment by other students and by school employees. Students of color also were disciplined more severely than white kids, and they were not allowed to form student groups.

“Some students, now in middle and high school, said they had experienced racial harassment each year since they were in kindergarten,” the DOJ report noted. “Students who attended school in other districts told us that the harassment they experienced in Davis schools was worse by far.”

When a child bullies another child, there are two children who need help. Behind every cruel kid is an environment that cultivated the cruelty. It’s a challenge for any school system to take on dysfunctional families, especially when the parents claim a right to destructively raise kids.

But they must take them on. Suicide is a pervasive and growing killer of American children, the single largest cause of death for Utah children between 10 and 17. And bullying is the the most frequent motivator. Even those bullying victims who don’t get to that point will bear scars that carry into adulthood, including higher rates of depression and anxiety.

It is common for those on the autism spectrum to struggle through childhood only to arrive at a point of success in adulthood. The coping skills they learn become their path to achievement.

But Izzy never got her chance to blossom.

It is only through a full and open examination of this case that Utahns can learn the lessons we sincerely need to learn.

And once the answers are known, the people in charge of schools need to build a culture that celebrates differences instead of condemning nonconformity. Every school needs a set of policies and procedures for recognizing bullying early and putting both the bullied and the bullies on a path to healing.

And we should call those policies “the Izzy rules.”

Editor’s note • 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.