A New Jersey school district has agreed to pay $9.1 million to the parents of a sixth grader who died by suicide in 2017, ending a lawsuit that accused administrators of failing to take bullying complaints seriously.
Dianne and Seth Grossman sued following the death of their daughter, Mallory, during her first year at Copeland Middle School in Rockaway Township. Mallory had been repeatedly bullied by other students in text and Snapchat messages, and although administrators were routinely contacted about the bullying, the school did not do enough to respond, according to the lawsuit.
The settlement, first reported by Northjersey.com, comes as schools face growing scrutiny over how they handle reports of bullying, both within their halls and online, after a student takes their own life.
The factors that contribute to suicide are complex and varied, and the act is rarely attributable to any one thing. But the question of a school’s culpability in cases where administrators made missteps or took insufficient action has become the subject of court cases around the country.
“I am hopeful that it sends a strong signal to school districts across the country that they have to take bullying seriously,” said Bruce H. Nagel, a lawyer representing the Grossman family.
The Rockaway Township School District superintendent of schools, Richard R. Corbett, said the district had no comment.
Mallory’s death, and her parents’ advocacy in the years that followed, led to the passage of Mallory’s Law in New Jersey last year. The law substantially strengthened the state’s bullying policies, according to Mr. Nagel, and required all schools to be far more active in preventing it. Her family also founded Mallory’s Army, an anti-bullying foundation.
As concern for the mental health of American teenagers has grown since the start of the pandemic, the role that administrators can play has become a key issue for school communities.
In a rare admission of failure, the Lawrenceville School, an elite private boarding school in New Jersey, released a statement in April saying that “bullying and unkind behavior, and actions taken or not taken by the school, likely contributed” to the death of Jack Reid, a 17-year-old junior, in 2022.
The admission was part of the negotiated terms of a settlement between the school and Jack’s parents. The school also committed to taking a series of corrective actions, including endowing a new dean’s position that will be focused on mental health issues.
The rates of suicide and self-harm have risen among adolescents, across demographics, in recent years. A study published in 2022 found that adolescents who experienced cyberbullying were more than four times as likely to report suicidal thoughts and attempts. Nearly three in five teenage girls felt persistent sadness in 2021, double the rate of boys, according to a recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The study also found that one in three girls seriously considered attempting suicide.
For Mallory’s parents, holding the school accountable for what they believe to be its role in the circumstances that led to her death was the key reason for their lawsuit. The settlement terms of lawsuits are not always made public, but Mr. Nagel said the $9.1 million agreement with the school district is the largest bullying settlement that he is aware of anywhere in the country.
Mallory was a cheerleader and gymnast who loved the outdoors, her parents said. They had no reason to believe that she was depressed or had other medical issues, they told The New York Times in 2018. However, she would often tell them that she was having bad days at school.
“She wanted help, but she didn’t want to draw attention,” Ms. Grossman said at the time.
In one instance, the school asked Mallory and her bullies to “hug each other,” according to the lawsuit. When she was bullied at lunch, she was directed to eat in a counselor’s office.
“There is this attack on the victim to ‘suck it up,’” Ms. Grossman said at the time. “I knew they weren’t taking it seriously.”
On Wednesday, Ms. Grossman told Northjersey.com that she and her husband were satisfied with the settlement.
“Ready to put this part behind us and move forward,” she told the outlet. “Continuing to lend our voice to the epidemic that is stealing our children’s future.”
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.