By JENNIFER DOBNER
SALT LAKE CITY – A Utah couple has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against a school district that claims it failed to protect their son from years of bullying, hazing and false sex assault allegations that led to his suicide.
The federal lawsuit filed Jan. 17 on behalf of Bradd and Edna Hancock seeks unspecified financial damages against North Sanpete School District.
The Hancock’s son, Jacob, committed suicide Jan. 21, 2010, said Sonny Olsen, an attorney for the Fountain Green family. Jacob Hancock was 18 and a senior in high school when he died, Olsen said.
The lawsuit contends district officials knew Jacob Hancock, who is identified in court papers only as J.H., was the target of physical and emotional abuse from students and school district employees for more than five years but failed to act to adequately protect him. That includes implementing existing policies against bullying, hazing and suicide prevention, Olsen said.
“It’s not like Jacob was a kid that nobody knew about,” said Olsen. “It we can’t save a kid in that setting, then either our policies are wrong or the people that are executing them are not the right people.”
Named as defendants in the lawsuit are the district, its board and the Sanpete County sheriff’s office, which provides the schools with campus-based resource officers. The North Sanpete High School and Middle School principals are also named individually named in the lawsuit, as are other school employees and two police officers.
Superintendent Leslie Keisel referred a request for comment to state risk managers.
“We have received the complaint and we understand a suit has been filed, but we’re in a phase right now where we are still gathering information,” Victoria Schoenfeld, spokeswoman for the Division of Risk Management said.
Sanpete County Attorney Brody Keisel, who is not related to the superintendent, said the sheriff’s office was aware of the lawsuit and will defend itself against its claims.
Olsen said the Hancocks are bringing the lawsuit two years after their son’s death because continued inquiries into how Jacob Hancock was treated suggest school officials were negligent in their handling of the situation.
“As reported by other students and peers, the harassing conduct was so prevalent and obvious that the responsible adults must have known, and indeed, witnesses it,” the lawsuit contends. “J.H.’s actions in taking his own life were a foreseeable result of the defendant’s tortious acts.”
It’s not clear why Jacob Hancock was a target, but court papers say the bullying and harassment began with gay slurs from three other male students while Hancock was in the eighth grade.
The abuse escalated to physical assaults, including pushing Jacob Hancock against the wall and a fist fight that ended with all involved being referred to juvenile court, the lawsuit states. One assault occurred while Jacob Hancock was naked and showering in he boy’s locker room and included touching his genitals and urinating on his towel, the lawsuit says.
Following a complaint from his parents, the school district offered to buy Jacob Hancock a new towel.
In court papers, Olsen contends similar harassments continued for 18 months without intervention by the district, increasing Jacob Hancock’s anxieties and negatively affecting his academic performance.
Jacob Hancock began to lash out against others and suffered a mental breakdown, which included his placement on suicide watch, court papers state.
Olsen contends bullying and harassment continued into high school and included at least one death threat from another student. Agitated and unable to sleep, Jacob Hancock first attempted suicide in 2008, court papers state.
The harassment continued in 2009, including incidents in which Jacob Hancock was physically restrained by one school police officer and hit by another. That same year, a football coach said publicly that he believed Hancock looked like a pedophile, court papers state.
The lawsuit also alleges that a high school vice principal publicly discussed Jacob Hancock’s emotional struggles with teachers and students, including stating that Hancock had suffered a mental breakdown.
After Bradd Hancock complained about the administrator’s actions, Jacob Hancock was accused of sexually abusing a teen girl and was arrested, court papers state.
The girl later said she had only been “tickled” and the charges were reduced, court papers state.
Jacob Hancock was suspended from school and then unsuccessfully tried to enroll elsewhere. Court papers state those efforts were blocked by false reports from the Sanpete district that Hancock had been expelled.
Jacob Hancock committed suicide a few months later, Olsen said.