Cause of Death: Bullying

Reporting: Shanna Grove, KOMU 8 Reporter

Web design and data: Jamie Grey, KOMU 8 Chief Investigator

In a highly unusual case of a death being legally blamed on bullying, one teenager’s life and death have opened up questions about responsibility and liability for the outcomes of bullying in schools and workplaces.

In this special Target 8 report, KOMU 8 News explores the issues of bullying, youth suicide, and legal responsibility. The initial television reports are scheduled to air Monday, March 20 and Tuesday, March 21 at 10:00 p.m. on KOMU 8.

If you have information, professional or personal insight that might contribute to this reporting project, please use the contact form at the bottom of this site, or email Target8@komu.com

Watch Part One of the series here and scroll down for more content and Part Two:

The death of Kenny Suttner

Kenny Suttner was 17-years-old when he took his own life on December 21, 2016. He pulled the trigger of a gun, ending his short life. The cause, said friends and then a jury, was bullying.

“They tore him down to the point that he didn’t think he was worth being here anymore,” one community member said.

Numerous friends and community members who knew Kenny talked to KOMU 8 News on the condition of anonymity. Since a coroner’s inquest in early 2017, many in the town have been fearful and said they’ve experienced retaliation for speaking out against Kenny’s school and workplace, where they said the bullying occurred.

“He’d share with me that he’d be called names… He’d tell me they’d tease him about his ears and things…He had a lisp, but they would tease him”

“I remember him saying about a couple of the teachers how they would down talk him and tell him he was worthless, and he was ugly and fat and stuff like that.”

“He was just the type of kid that he just didn’t want to bother nobody and be, he just held it all in.”

Despite the bullying, friends and community members said Kenny was friendly and had a soft spot for others.

“He’s just the kind of kid you just fall in love with.”

“He was one of the kids where he would would give his shirt off his back for you.”

“You could tell he would go out of his way to do anything for a friend.”

A coroner’s inquest

Jurors at a coroner’s inquest in early 2017 said bullying contributed to Suttner’s self-inflicted gunshot wound on Dec. 21, 2016.

Inquest

The jury found that Harley Branham, a manager he worked with at Dairy Queen, played a focal role in his death. People who testified at the inquest said Kenny’s Branham targeted him and forced him to do humiliating chores, such as cleaning the floor while on his stomach and verbally harassing him.

The jury said Dairy Queen was negligent in training its employees in harassment prevention and resolution. The jury also said the school followed policies and procedures, but was negligent in preventing bullying, all of which caused Suttner to take his own life.

InquestCropped

Coroner’s jury inquest form from February 2017.

Special Prosecuting Attorney April Wilson said there were two places Suttner experienced bullying.

“He had some pretty extreme bullying that was occurring at work, which ultimately led to the jury’s decision that Harley Branham was the main actor in the involuntary manslaughter charge,” Wilson said. “And he was also experiencing bullying it sounded like for a long period of time at school.”

Wilson made a statement for the family.

“They said that they were, felt like this was Kenny’s voice and they were hoping that this was justice for Kenny and that justice would continue,” Wilson said. “And if this could just save one child’s life, that Kenny’s death was not in vain.”

Howard County Coroner Frank Flaspohler said coroner’s inquests aren’t very common. He said as a coroner for 24 years, this is only his fifth inquest.

Flaspohler said this one had a very important reason:

“If we don’t look at the ultimate cause, the really underlying cause, we can only treat the symptoms. We can’t cure the disease. If we get people to focus on bullying, maybe we can crack that problem.”

On Feb. 1, Howard County prosecutor’s office charged Harley Branham with involuntary manslaughter.

A court document said Branham acted with criminal negligence by harassing and causing the death of Kenneth Suttner. Bond was set at $25,000.

HarleyBranham

Harley Branham mug shot. Courtesy: Howard Co. Sheriff’s Dept.

From ‘suicide’ to ‘homicide’ – A death certificate changed

After the inquest, Flaspohler spoke with KOMU 8 News again. He reiterated how rare this inquest was. In fact, of the five inquests he has conducted in his career, this was the first time he brought this type of case.

“This was the first one to involve a suicide,” Flaspohler said.

In fact, because the jury decided others were responsible in the death, Flaspohler said the cause of death will officially change.

“As a result of the coroner’s inquest, when the coroner’s jury said that Kenny died by felony, then I would mark that death certificate homicide,” Flaspohler said.

He agreed he has never heard of inquests looking into bullying anywhere else.

“The coroner speaks for the deceased in order to protect the living, and I think that’s really the underlying reason for this inquest,” Flaspohler said. “I wanted to speak for Kenny so we can protect other people from the same thing happening.”

The Glasgow School District’s attorney, as well as an employment law attorney, agreed on the uniqueness of this case.

Flaspohler felt the inquest was necessary for public health and said the risk of this happening to someone else was a possibility.

“If I just marked the death certificate a gunshot wound but don’t mark the death certificate why, then nobody looks at the underlying cause, and we don’t fix the problem,” Flaspohler said. “So bullying was the cause of death, and that’s the problem we need to address.”

As a result of the jury’s findings, Flaspohler said the death certificate would be changed.

Watch Part Two of the series here:

A town divided

“The division I see a lot after the inquest, I got the cold shoulder, you know, because I was on the stand with Kenny”

Since the inquest, people in Glasgow have told KOMU 8 News businesses have been boycotted, cars have been keyed and fear has taken hold.

“I feel like just because an inquest was conducted the town should not be divided. I think that, you know, some people were mad because it [the inquest] happened, some people were glad because it happened,” another community member said.

Glasgow2

As our reporter began working on this series, one parent wrote to her, “People are scared of retaliation… I don’t want my kids to become targets. But please, please keep trying to expose the truth! I beg you! There is a problem….it’s real.”

A divide has persisted among some families and the school, according to community members who have reached out to KOMU 8 News.

“Why would a 17-year-old boy want to take his own life if something was done about it?” one woman said.

“Our school doesn’t do anything about our bullying, like they say they do, but they don’t really,” a Glasgow Schools student said.

“I feel like Kenny would still be here with us here today if something was done,” said one student who said they were also being bullied at Glasgow Schools.

The student’s mom said having a bully policy only goes so far:

“You can preach a bully policy all you want, you can post papers, you can wallpaper the school in a bully policy, you have to enforce it and I don’t feel that it’s being enforced.”

A release from the Glasgow School District said, “It is seemingly not enough for the district to adopt policies and procedures to prevent bullying, not enough to train staff and students on bullying prevention, the district must prevent every instance of one student bullying another. With due respect to the inquest jury, no school district can satisfy this standard.”

Some residents also told KOMU 8 News they enjoy the community and said the school has many great teachers, though it was a challenge to get interviews with anyone in town.

The school’s response: ‘A character assassination’

The school district’s attorney, Tom Mickes, said the loss of any student is a tragedy, but policies and procedures cannot stop all bullying.

“There is nothing that the school district or any of its employees could have done differently that would have avoided this tragedy,” Mickes said.

Mickes specifically denied any district responsibility for Kenny’s death.School

“How would Glasgow be responsible for a student committing suicide? That’s ludicrous. I just got done saying we do all the policies, we do all the training, even the jury found the district followed all its policies and all its procedures.”

Mickes said at Glasgow there is a well-defined policy, yearly student and staff training and reporting forms for bullying.

He said the inquest tarnished the reputation of the school district and the people who give their lives to the education and welfare of kids:

“What it is, is a character assassination. It doesn’t carry any weight other than assassinating the reputation of a lot of men and women who give themselves to those kids to provide them with the best education possible in a safe environment every single day. There was no notice there was any bullying of this student.”

A release from the Glasgow School District said, “Reputations and character of District teachers, administrators have been harmed as a result of a proceeding in which they were not allowed to defend themselves. Unfortunately, the coroner has, in an apparent attempt to justify his actions, made statements about the District and its staff that he knows to be false.”

Mickes said the evidence at the inquest was “cherry picked,” and he said the school district voluntarily provided the coroner documents and made teachers available.

“The coroner said that the district did not cooperate, the school district, which was totally false,” Mickes said.

When KOMU 8 News asked the coroner to respond, Flaspohler said those accusations are untrue.

“There were no fabrications, there were no lies,” Flaspohler said. “I’m not going to get into an argument with the school over this or that because that diverts from what I want people to focus on and that is bullying.”

As Target 8 began looking deeper into this case, Glasgow parents sent the Target 8 team school announcements notifying families about anti-bullying programming that has taken place and is planned for the future.

MSBA attorney: Schools getting sued more often over bullying

KOMU 8 contacted legal experts to find out what schools are legally responsible for when it comes to bullying and harassment.

“School districts have a legal responsibility to prevent bullying that involves illegal discrimination and harassment,” said Susan Goldammer, an attorney with the Missouri School Boards’ Association.

She said the Missouri School Boards’ Association provides information, training and sample policies to school districts.

Sample Policies

She said although school districts’ and parents’ consciousness surrounding the negative effects of bullying has increased, it has also become more common to sue school districts in cases of “alleged bullying:”

“I don’t think that the school district has responsibility for absolutely everything a child says or does, that said, it has become somewhat of a trend to sue school districts, particularly in situations where students commit suicide.”

She said there are state statutes that address bullying.

“We have a state statute that requires all school districts to have a policy,” Goldammer said. “And it is very detailed what needs to be in the policy, regarding immediately investigating bullying. It also goes into some detail as far as training, training of staff and directing of staff to assist victims.”

She also said there is a state statute that requires school districts to report criminal behavior, and some acts of bullying might be considered harassment of first degree – which is a felony.

“The real difficulty school districts face is actually identifying misbehavior as bullying and then coming up with a solution to try and train the young person not to bully again in the future,” Goldammer said.

She said the only way school districts can protect themselves from lawsuits in cases of bullying is to do as much as possible to prevent bullying in the beginning and handle it when it happens.

“School districts need good policies, they need good training for their staff, they need good training for the students, they need to do everything they can to foster a climate and a culture where students come forward and correct it themselves or come to a trusted adult to report it,” Goldammer said. “They need to work cooperatively with parents in trying to curb behavior and they need support of parents and community that are going to help them correct student behavior.

For a video of Susan Goldammer discussing the responsibility of schools see below.

Resources for school administrators

The Center for Education Safety is a part of the MSBA and provides member districts with safety resources and training.

“One of the things with the center for education safety that we do is a proactive way to address any situation with school violence, especially bullying, is looking at it from a multidisciplinary approach, so we recommend that they use a multidisciplinary team in their school districts,” Kara Sanders, administrator with MSBA’s Center for Education Safety, said.

MSBA Resources

The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education sent the following statement on bullying policies.

“Missouri statutes grant the board of education for each school district the authority to govern its school district pursuant to Section 171.011, RSMo. The authority for those school boards to govern their school districts includes compliance with federal and state laws.

“Section 160.775 is the Missouri statute that requires ‘every school district to adopt an anti-bullying policy.’ So it is the school districts’ legal responsibility to comply with this statute. The State Board of Education and DESE do not have the legal authority to enforce the school districts’ compliance. 

“The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education does use tools to assist school districts to comply with the anti-bullying laws. There is a checklist to verify that school districts are complaint with state and federal statutes, including Section 160.775. It is our Missouri School Improvement Program – Items Not Waived Checklist. In addition, DESE has a link on our website that provides information on the Safe Schools Act at https://dese.mo.gov/governmental-affairs/legislation/safe-schools-act.”

Bullying reports by school

“I hope to see that it brings light to a lot of people and that they realize that it’s an issue, I mean, not only in Glasgow, but everywhere.” – Glasgow Schools Parent

The Target 8 team requested data from the School Violence Hotline, which is operated by the Missouri Department of Social Services, Children’s Division. The hotline offers parents, students and others the opportunity to report issues at schools from bullying and harassment to sexual misconduct and theft.

KOMU 8 received data on reports filed from 2014 through 2016. Of those reports, we found 778 reports of bullying or harassment. Use the interactive map below to look at schools in your area. By clicking on the points, you can see what type of report was filed, the specific school involved and when the report was filed.

Bullying Map

CLICK HERE to use the interactive map to track bullying/harassment reports in your school.

Potential liability for employers

“Depending on the circumstances and the facts involved, there is certainly the potential for liability to the employer directly through a tort type of claim under Missouri common law, and there’s certainly also potential for liability under the Workers’ Compensation Act,” said Marjorie Lewis, an employment law attorney with Brown Willbrand, P.C.

However, Lewis said in most cases there is probably not going to be any liability or compensation under Missouri common law or the Workers’ Compensation Act because of high standards to get compensation for emotional distress injuries.

She said the Workers’ Compensation Act covers most workplace injuries; however, an employee could have some advantages of getting around the act in order to make a direct claim against the employer.

“The advantage to an employee by having it not covered by the Workers’ Compensation Act is they could file in certain circumstances a direct lawsuit against their employer under Missouri common law tort claims,” Lewis said. “And that has the potential for getting a higher award than what you could get in a workers’ compensation case. Workers compensation cases also have their advantages because they assure to the employee that the employee in proper cases will get compensated.”

She said it is a harder to make a case in a lawsuit for tort liability. The workers’ compensation system is a more straightforward claim to make, but has some limitations, according to Lewis.

“Under the workers’ compensation system, normally your typical day-to-day emotional distress that you might have at work, that’s considered standard in the type of employment that you’re in,” Lewis said. “That’s not going to be compensable.”

However, Lewis said there are scenarios where an employee or their survivors could maintain a claim based on bullying or severe emotional distress resulting in a suicide.

“There is always potential for liability,” Lewis said.

Lewis said it’s important for employers to make sure that bullying is not happening and should train employees and monitor the workplace for bullying and harassment.

“If I were advising an employer on the risk, I would say don’t let this occur, do what you can to not let this occur in the workplace. And provide training, provide written policies and procedures make sure that there are ways for employees to report any harassment or bullying and make sure that the employees can report to someone who is not in their direct supervisory line.”

She said hopefully employers will take bullying seriously if they haven’t already and make sure it is not happening.

“I do think that this case will make it so that attorneys and employees and their families are more likely to think about whether or not they have a claim,” Lewis said. “If there’s bullying or harassment or if suicide is a result, I also do think that employers are looking at this.”

For a video of Marjorie Lewis discussing the potential liability for employers see below.

More than 32 percent of students report being victims of bullying; 5 percent attempt suicide

According to statewide data provided by Missouri Department of Mental Health, an average of 5.21 percent of students reported attempting suicide in 2016. County-by-county, Webster County had the highest percentage reporting an attempt, at almost 11 percent.

The number of students reporting “seriously considering suicide” is about double the percentage who reported an attempt. In 2016, an average of 11.34 percent of Missouri students reported considering suicide within the last year.

Suicide Attempt Map 2016

Students reporting attempting suicide within the past year (2016). Source: Missouri Dept. of Mental Health

 

Nearly a third of students, on average, reported being victims of bullying in the last year. One county, Mississippi County, reported the highest percentage, with 65 percent of students saying they had been the victims of bullying in 2016.

Bullying Victim Map and Key 2016

Students reporting being victims of bulling within the past year (2016). Source: Missouri Dept. of Mental Health.

Suicide prevention resources

If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or call 911 for emergency services.

CLICK HERE to visit the state’s resources for suicide prevention.

Additional contributors: Megan Stoll and Annie Hammock

Contact Target 8

If you have professional or personal insight that might contribute to our reporting, please fill out the contact form below. It will be sent directly to our Target 8 investigative team.