The parents of a 12-year-old black girl have sued her Texas school after a group of white classmates allegedly wrapped a rope around her neck and “violently jerked” her to the ground, leaving burns in her skin that are documented in graphic photos included in the complaint.
The incident, which reportedly left the girl with a “severe and painful” rope cut on her neck, has brought national attention to Live Oak classical school, a largely white private school in Waco, Texas, that has been accused of having a history of bullying problems.
The lawsuit filed this week – which seeks damages of $3m for medical bills, physical pain, disfigurement and suffering – alleges that the school was negligent in its failure to protect the girl and in its response to the injuries.
The school has denied the allegations, arguing that the incident was an accident.
The injuries happened during the sixth-grade class’s overnight campout at the end of April when a group of students began to play with a rope swing hanging from a tree at the Germer Ranch in Blanco County.
Three boys surprised the girl, identified by her initials KP, while they were playing, according to the lawsuit.
“She did not see what the boys behind her were doing, and the next thing KP knew, she felt the rope wrap around her neck and she was violently jerked to the ground,” the suit states.
“KP looked up, and saw the three boys an arm’s length from where she was laying. None of the three boys, nor anyone else, helped her off the ground or helped remove the rope from her neck as they would have done if it had been an accident.”
The school’s principal, Allison Buras, did not investigate whether the incident was intentional, and the school did not notify the girl’s mother, Sandy Rougely, the suit claims.
When Rougely picked up her daughter the next day, she “thought KP’s neck had been ripped open and stitched back together based on how the injury appeared” and immediately took her to the emergency room, the suit says.
“Even if this incident was unintentional, the school’s lack of supervision to let this happen, dismissive and tone deaf response after it happened, and refusal to investigate until legally prompted to, showed an utter disregard for one of the only African American children in the school,” the suit says. “Even ignoring what or who caused this injury, the school’s failure to notify the injured child’s mother is inexcusable and reckless.”
The suit also claims that a series of bullying incidents precipitated the rope injury.
Starting in the fall, the suit alleges, KP “began to come home with disturbing reports that her classmates did not accept her, would not talk with her, and even physically bullied her”.
One boy pushed her to the ground in the cubby room and kicked and shoved her during a class assignment when a teacher was not looking, according to the complaint. That boy was involved in the rope incident, the suit says.
When the girl’s mother asked Live Oak for help last fall, the “school’s response was that the bullying had been an ‘accident,’ and the boy had not meant to push KP to the ground”, the suit says.
The complaint includes an email from Buras to the mother that said: “It sounds like he may have pushed on the back of her leg to make her leg buckle, which is something the kids sometimes do. Rarely is that done out of meanness but more out of a desire for sport.”
Other families have come forward to raise concerns about bullying since the story went public, according to the complaint.
David Deaconson, attorney for the school, said in an interview on Thursday that the school’s investigation into the rope injuries “indicates that what happened was an unfortunate accident”.
The school followed its policies in place at the time when it failed to contact the girl’s mother and has since changed its rules so that officials will automatically alert parents about injuries, Deaconson said.
The lawyer further argued that the school properly addressed the family’s original complaints about bullying, claiming that Rougely’s decision to sign her daughter up for another year of school is evidence that she was satisfied with administrators’ response.
“If the mother was concerned that bullying was ongoing … would the mother have voluntarily re-enrolled the child?”
Levi McCathern, the family’s attorney, said in a statement that Rougely chose not to remove her daughter from the school because she had hopes that officials would prevent future bullying.