Editor’s note: Once a month, the National Interest column will tackle broader questions about what the country should do to increase educational opportunities for black youths.
Gabriel Taye, an 8-year-old African-American boy, was caught on security camera Jan. 24, seemingly about to shake another boy’s hand.
He was by the entrance of the bathroom at Carson Elementary School in Cincinnati. The jerky, stop-motion footage shows him offer his hand, and then the next frame shows a little body on the floor, partially hidden in the corner, legs sticking out. For the next few minutes, students stop to peer and prod at him, without trying to get help, and even kick at him. Maybe the worst, though, are the ones who walk casually over Gabriel’s prone body, as if he were a piece of trash that missed the can.
It took nearly five minutes for the school staff to find the boy sprawled on the floor. After reviving Gabriel, they called his mother to pick him up. Inexplicably, school officials did not notify the boy’s mother that her son had been assaulted. Instead, they told her that Gabriel had fainted and hit his head.
He stayed home from school for a day, and after he returned to Carson the following day, he came home and hanged himself in his bedroom using his necktie.
The Cincinnati Public Schools superintendent recently announced that after an investigation by the district, no linkage had been found between Gabriel’s death and bullying. The police investigation is ongoing. No charges have been filed. The third-grader didn’t report any bullying prior to his assault, and the jerky quality of the video makes it hard to tell exactly what happened. But 8-year-olds don’t kill themselves without provocation.
Bullying is an issue that hurts many black youths. Indifference to unfair or cruel treatment toward black children breeds violence—in school and out. Sometimes, doing nothing is an assault in itself and another form of bullying that in Gabriel’s case was midwife to his death.
In a loving education community, students will rush to aid a fallen classmate or call for help. This didn’t happen at Carson. Five minutes going by, and at least a dozen fellow students passing Gabriel’s inert body, says a lot about a school.
Indifference is ubiquitous in black youths’ lives, but callousness in school is a telltale sign that authentic learning isn’t occurring. Students might be taught arithmetic, but they aren’t absorbing other, equally important, life lessons.
We know that bullying is going on in Carson because, at some level, it does at most schools. Twenty-eight percent of U.S. students in grades 6 through 12, and 20 percent of students in grades 9 through 12, have experienced bullying, according to national survey data from 2014. Approximately 30 percent of young people admit to bullying others. And suicide was the second-leading cause of death in the 10-to-14 and 15-to-24 age groups.
But the rate of suicide for black children between the ages of 5 and 11 doubled between 1993 and 2013, while rates declined for whites in the same age group, according to a 2015 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Why are so many black kids killing themselves before they even hit their teenage years? They might have many differences—family circumstance, support network at school, medical problems, etc.—but there are two things they have in common: They are black, and they spend most of their day in school.
When your school becomes a source of pain, there are few places to find psychological relief. Principals should play the role of a nurturing parent more than that of a stoic or even aggressive cop. If a school’s culture reflects the outside world, children will feel there is no escape. The streets are mean enough.
In April, another shocking incident hit the news. Kevin Murray, a principal at a school along the outskirts of Pittsburgh, was caught on video holding a student’s head down while a school resource officer (a police officer who is stationed in a school to provide security) struck the child with a stun gun. The school’s leader assisted in the tasing of the student. The officer handcuffed the student, lifted him by the cuffs, then continued to taunt the child, whose name was not released.
The district’s superintendent, Alan Johnson, amazingly, said, “They [abuse incidents] don’t reflect what Woodland Hills is about.” Really? In 2011-2012, Woodland Hills School District was among the top 10 districts in the nation for suspending elementary school students, as reported by the Pittsburgh Post Gazette.
The police investigation of the Carson case is ongoing, but given how police and schools work together in other institutions, such as in the Pittsburgh school, will Gabriel get a fair hearing?
There is no real suicide in stories like these; there’s only death we don’t have a name for. You know who did have a name? Gabriel Taye. And we dishonor him when we say there’s no connection between bullying and his death.
This story was produced by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, in partnership with The Root.