A mom in Pennsylvania is suing her town’s school district and six students over bullying she says led to her 15-year-old son’s suicide. The school’s response only made things worse.
Zachary Kirchner took his own life in the basement of his family home in southeastern York County, Pennsylvania in April 2021. He had told classmates he wanted to kill himself.
His death followed years of harassment by students and neglect by school administrators in the Red Lion School District, according to the lawsuit filed by Kirchner’s mom, Hope Amspacher.
“Student defendants relentlessly harassed, belittled and broke down decedent by telling him to ‘kill yourself,’” and for Kirchner to do a “charity” for the defendants by dying by suicide.
Kirchner came out as gay in eighth grade. He was also high-functioning on the autism spectrum, another reason he was targeted by his tormentors, according to the lawsuit.
The school district had “actual notice” of Kirchner’s harassment, the lawsuit claims, while their failure to properly react to complaints of bullying “further emboldened” the student defendants.
Kirchner’s older brother, who found the teen bleeding and hanging from a noose in their basement, attended the same school and was witness to several incidents of abuse.
It was a front-row seat to Kirchner’s “psychological torture in real time,” the lawsuit says, including at least one instance when the brother reported to both the principal and assistant principal that classmates were calling Kirchner a gay slur.
Administrators told him to “mind his own business.”
“Zach K is a [gay slur]” was scrawled on a boy’s bathroom stall door and remained there even after Kirchner’s suicide, the lawsuit says.
The bullying led to self-harming behavior and a previous suicide attempt in December 2020, incidents the school district was aware of, the lawsuit states. Kirchner was hospitalized for several days after the attempt to take his own life.
The lawsuit claims the abuse continued after Kirchner’s return to school and was exacerbated by the 15-year-old’s autism, leading to “outbursts” and punishment by school officials. One intervention characterized as a “reset” by school officials was gathering classmates in a circle with Kirchner to explain what they didn’t like about him.
Seven of the counts in the lawsuit allege the school district failed to respond adequately to sexual harassment and disability-based bullying under state and federal laws, while others describe the student defendants’ behavior and taunts as being “recklessly indifferent to the risk of harm.”
Kirchner’s obituary read in part: “Zach was a supporter of LGBTQ rights and believed that everyone should be treated equally, no matter what your race, religion, or sexual orientation, may be. His life was cut tragically short when the bullying that he was being subjected to, became more than he could bear. His family wants everyone to know what a wonderful person this world has lost.”
A year after Kirchner’s death, his abuse continued. One student defendant posted a yearbook photo of Kirchner on the anniversary of his suicide, with a rope placed across his neck and a caption reading, “Can’t believe 1 year, rope still ain’t break,” with a flexing bicep emoji and a smiley face with sunglasses.