SPRINGFIELD — Attorneys wrangled in federal court Tuesday over whether school officials should be held liable for the suicide of a 15-year-old student in 2020.
The girl, identified as “N.M.” in court records, died by suicide on Jan. 30 of that year, one month after the child’s mother took her daughter out of Northampton High School where she was allegedly physically and verbally attacked by other students at least three times.
The girl’s mother initially sued the city in Hampshire Superior Court earlier this year. The case has since been transferred to U.S. District Court over alleged civil rights violations and other federal claims.
Lawyers for the city filed a motion to dismiss all of the claims, arguing school officials attempted to mitigate the harassment by putting into place a “safety plan,” while the girl was still enrolled. The plaintiff’s attorney, Laura Mangini, countered that the school failed to take enough action and minimized the interactions as “peer-to-peer conflict” to skirt state anti-bullying laws.
“She was terrified to attend school because she was afraid she was going to get beaten up. And the teachers had knowledge of this,” Mangini told U.S. Magistrate Judge Katherine Robertson.
In one instance in school after the safety plan was put in place, another student confronted N.M. to say: “Bitch, this is why you have no friends,” 10 days after one physical attack, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges N.M. was physically beaten by classmates twice in 2019 and was suspended three times for trying to defend herself. As a biracial child, the girl also was subjected to insults by her classmates and remarks by an assistant principal regarding the girl’s faux eyelashes being related to “her culture.”
Jeffrey Trapani, a lawyer for the city, argued that, if anything, the school officials were guilty of “omissions,” as opposed to overt acts adding to the girl’s emotional distress. To that end, school administrators’ conduct did not meet the threshold of civil rights violations under the law, he said.
Lawyers on both sides also cited previous litigation over bullying, some of which have gone up to higher courts including the state’s Supreme Judicial Court and the Appeals Court. Rulings in those cases have still left voids in the law — including whether school districts have “a duty” to prevent student suicides.
“These are complex issues of the law and this is a very difficult situation,” Robertson said.
The judge took the matter under advisement and will issue a ruling at a later date.