SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The family of a 10-year-old girl who died by suicide has accused a Utah school district that was recently reprimanded by the U.S. Department of Justice for failing to address widespread racial discrimination of not doing enough to protect their daughter who they said was bullied for being Black and autistic.
Salt Lake City police confirmed this week they are investigating the weekend death of Isabella "Izzy" Tichenor as a suicide. Her death has generated widespread outrage, including Wednesday from Utah Jazz star Donovan Mitchell, who called the case "sickening."
Tyler Ayres, an attorney representing Izzy's family, said Izzy was bullied by a small group of other students who called her the N-word, told her she was smelly and made fun of her for being autistic. Ayres said the family reported the bullying to teachers, as well as school and district administrators, but nothing was done to stop the harassment.
"We don't take umbrage with the children," Ayres said in a phone interview. "We take umbrage with the adults who chose not to do anything about it. The adults who were in charge there should have taken these kids aside."
Ayres said the family is "completely distraught" and also concerned for Izzy's younger siblings who attend the same school and have experienced similar bullying from students.
Shauna Lund, a spokeswoman for Davis School District, said Foxboro Elementary School in North Salt Lake "worked extensively with the family" and that the administration responded appropriately to the reports of bullying. Lund declined to share any further details to uphold the family's privacy.
"We, like everyone, are devastated by the death of this child," Lund said in a statement. "Our hearts go out to the family. Foxboro Elementary has worked extensively with the family and will continue to provide help to them and others impacted by this tragedy."
Several hundred people gathered at a vigil Tuesday night to remember Izzy.
Izzy's death comes about two weeks after a federal civil rights investigation found widespread racial harassment of Black and Asian American students at Davis School District, including hundreds of documented uses of the N-word and other racial epithets over the last five years.
Black students throughout the district told investigators about similar experiences of white and non-Black students calling them the N-word, referring to them as monkeys or apes and saying that their skin was dirty or looked like feces, according to the department's findings. Students also made monkey noises at their Black peers, repeatedly referenced slavery and lynching and told Black students to "go pick cotton" and "you are my slave."
District officials admitted to federal investigators that their discipline data from at least four years revealed that staff treated students of color differently than white students, but the district did nothing to correct these disparities, according to the department.
The district acknowledged in a statement the investigation revealed incidents that "were not handled appropriately" and pledged to resolve any previous complaints. Black and Asian American students are each roughly 1% of the approximately 73,000 students enrolled in the district north of Salt Lake City.
Jeanetta Williams, president of NAACP's tri-state conference area of Idaho-Utah-Nevada, is waiting to find out more from the school district's investigation to make any sweeping assessments but said the tragic case illustrates how bullying is a serious and pervasive issue around Utah and the country.
"It's time that everybody look at their situations within their school district and make sure they are adequately addressing bullying, that they are adequately addressing discrimination and making sure that every student feels safe," Williams said.