Suicide of bullied student raises questions for Catholic school

Boy sitting Credit Unsplash CNA Photo | Unsplash.

The suicide of a seventh grade Catholic school student prompted outpourings of grief and prayers, amid disputed claims from his family that the school did not do enough to stop bullying.

"We mourn the passing of Daniel Fitzpatrick. His family is in our prayers," Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio said, according to the Brooklyn diocese's newspaper The Tablet.

"While there are many unanswered questions, it is indisputable that this is an unspeakable tragedy," he said, adding "We must always remain vigilant and attentive to the emotional needs of the children in our care."

Carolyn Erstad, a spokeswoman for the Diocese of Brooklyn, also spoke in grief.

"The principal, teachers, and staff of Holy Angels Catholic Academy are heartbroken over the loss of Danny Fitzpatrick," she said, according to the New York Daily News. "We take the issue of bullying very seriously and address every incident that is brought to our attention."

Erstad said the diocese is reexamining all bullying prevention policies and training. Teachers at the school have undergone comprehensive anti-bullying training and intervened in any conflict between the boy and other students, a diocesan spokesperson told the Tablet. The school disciplined anyone involved in bullying and the school invited police to discuss bullying before classes, including Daniel's.

The 13-year-old killed himself in the attic of his family's home on Aug. 11. Several weeks before, he wrote a letter saying "I gave up." His letter charged that the teachers "didn't do anything." He said he was bullied "constantly" by five boys at school and his fight with one of them caused a fractured pinkie finger. Family members of the boy said he was the target of perpetual bullying at school.

"My son shouldn't have to die to be heard," his mother Maureen Fitzpatrick told the New York Daily News. "There's something wrong with the adults in authority positions when kids can't go to them for help…No parent is supposed to bury their child."

Family members, including a sister who attended the same school alleged that a teacher at the school known for humiliating students called Daniel "lazy" and would display students' scores to embarrass those who behaved poorly.

The Washington Post says it obtained a report filed in fall 2015 with New York City's Administration of Children's Services from an investigator who said Daniel was failing his classes and engaged in angry outbursts.

According to the report, Daniel said his mother's drunkenness "affects him in everything and makes him angry." He denied physical abuse but indicated that his father and his sister would hide him from his mother.

"Danny denies suicidal thoughts, but feels angry, sad, has thoughts of wanting to run away," the report said. "Mother is blaming his teachers for his failures and has written several accusatory letters to school. Student is afraid of both parents anger."

Scott Rynecki, a lawyer representing the Fitzpatrick family, told the Washington Post that the documents are part of an effort to discredit families that are problems for the Catholic school.

He showed a letter from the New York State Office of Children and Family Services to Daniel's mother saying that the report was considered "unfounded" as the local child protective service had found "no credible evidence" to believe that children were mistreated.

"The belief is that the Catholic school themselves put in some sort of claim and spoke to the child and somehow twisted his claims," charged Rynecki, whose law firm is considering a wrongful death suit against the school for alleged failure to have a proper bullying prevention program.

Erstad told the Post that under state guidelines a school guidance counselor was allowed to meet with the boy up to three times before his parents needed to consent to more meetings. The parents declined to consent.

The school's anti-bullying training is based on the Olweus program. CNA contacted the Brooklyn diocese for comment but did not receive a response by deadline.

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