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School of Black Utah student who died by suicide allowed bullying ‘on any ground’ to go unchecked, report finds

<i>Rick Bowmer/AP</i><br/>Brittany Tichenor-Cox holds a photo of her daughter
Rick Bowmer/AP
Brittany Tichenor-Cox holds a photo of her daughter

By Nicole Chavez, CNN

When Isabella “Izzy” Tichenor died by suicide in November, her mother alleged that the 10-year-old Black and autistic student at Foxboro Elementary in Farmington, Utah, had been bullied because of her race and disability.

Izzy’s death sparked widespread outrage and renewed questions about the Davis School District’s handling of bullying allegations.

In a newly released investigative report commissioned by the district, a three-person review team learned that Izzy was told by classmates and teachers that she smelled and needed to bathe, but found no “direct evidence” the girl had been bullied on the basis of her race or disability.

The review team noted that “issues relating to race, disability, and poverty sometimes intersect and when they do, can further complicate already challenging situations. It can be very difficult to extricate one from the others.”

“When a student told Izzy she needed to wash her hair, this comment could have been borne out of racial animus, could have been an innocuous observation, or could have been a cloaked insult about poverty,” the report says.

The findings do show, however, that the school failed to protect Izzy by dismissing and not investigating in a timely manner her mother’s allegation that Izzy was bullied.

The report also found that staff at Foxboro did not show “actual knowledge” of the district’s definition of “bullying,” and that the school fostered an atmosphere “in which bullying … could go underreported, uninvestigated, and unaddressed.”

Izzy’s death came weeks after the Justice Department publicly detailed a disturbing pattern at the Davis School District in which Black and Asian American students had been harassed for years and officials had deliberately ignored complaints from parents and students. The DOJ’s findings came in a report and settlement agreement released in October. The agency had been investigating the school district since July 2019.

Tyler Ayres, an attorney representing the Tichenor family, declined to comment for this story. He previously told CNN the family sought out teachers and school leadership to report that Izzy was teased repeatedly and felt ignored.

Izzy’s mother, Brittany Tichenor-Cox, did not respond to a CNN request for comment.

Neither Ayres nor Izzy’s mother agreed to participate in the school district’s independent review, the report says.

In a statement, the Davis School District said it was reviewing the report’s recommendations and sent condolences to Izzy’s family.

“We are taking it seriously. We vow to continue our ongoing and extensive efforts to foster a welcoming environment for all students in the Davis School District,” the statement said.

Report: Izzy wasn’t ‘expressly’ bullied for being Black or autistic

The school received reports of bullying allegations but it took months for staff to create an official record, and only did so after learning that Izzy had attempted suicide, the report says.

Tichenor-Cox reported three incidents starting in September of 2021, including an incident in which Izzy’s sister had allegedly been called names by a student, the report said.

Tichenor-Cox reached out to school officials saying the same student had allegedly threatened her children and told them he had a gun, the report says. The school staff reviewed surveillance video and searched the student’s backpack three days later, concluding they could not support the allegations, the report said.

A week later, Tichenor-Cox said “the same student called Izzy’s sister the ‘N-word’ and touched her.” The school could not confirm the alleged incident after reviewing surveillance video and speaking with two “potential witnesses,” the report said.

However, school officials determined it seemed “more likely than not” that the confrontation occurred and decided to suspend the student, barring him from eating breakfast in the school cafeteria, and making both parties — the student and the Tichenor children — sign a contract agreeing to avoid each other. The report did not say if Izzy was aware of or witnessed the alleged incidents.

The school told the district that it may need to conduct an investigation into racial bullying but did not specifically mention the Tichenors.

While the report says none of the more than 40 school employees and students interviewed for the investigation recalled Izzy being “expressly” bullied for being Black or autistic, many said students and teachers made comments about her hygiene.

Tichenor-Cox complained to a teacher that one of Izzy’s classmates bullied Izzy, telling her she smelled and that she needed to wash her hair, the report says.

A special education teacher told the review team that she told Izzy she smelled and asked her if she had taken a shower, the report said. At some point, Tichenor-Cox complained about teacher telling the class they “smelled” and said Izzy sprayed Febreze on herself before going to school after hearing these comments, the report said.

The independent review also noted that no records show any diagnosis of autism for Izzy. Her mother had asked school administrators for an assessment in fall of 2020, the report said, but she never brought Izzy in for the requested observation and testing. Her mother made another request for an assessment in September of 2021, which was conducted in October, but the assessment had not been completed when Izzy died, the report said.

Based on their report, the team is recommending the school district train its staff on how to identify and address bullying, provide diversity and equity sessions, and “trauma-informed, poverty training.”

Foxboro Elementary should also establish clear protocols for record-keeping and reporting of bullying, the report says.

The Utah chapter of Black Lives Matter said in a statement they were “disappointed but not surprised” by the report’s findings.

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