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Jury says teen who died by suicide was bullied at school -- but not 'severe or pervasive' enough to award damages

Buffalo News - 10/17/2023

Oct. 17—A jury believed that an Allegany teen who died by suicide had been bullied by classmates because of his disabilities but did not find the harassment severe or pervasive enough to award damages in its verdict Monday.

Jurors, however, awarded $25,000 to his estate in the lawsuit against Allegany-Limestone Central School District over how Gregory Spring was treated when a coach kicked him off the junior varsity baseball team.

"I think that the family is gratified that the jury recognized that Gregory was discriminated against on the basis of his disability and subjected to harassment," said attorney A.J. Bosman, who represented Gregory's mother, Keri Spring. "I think that one of the difficulties we had to overcome — which proved to be insurmountable — was the fact that the school district failed to keep any records of the complaints of harassment and bullying that we were making."

The Allegany teen had just finished his sophomore year of high school when he shot himself in the head with a rifle on June 17, 2013, on a wooded hillside a quarter-mile from his grandfather's house.

Keri Spring filed the discrimination lawsuit in 2014, saying the district's negligence and deliberate indifference led to her son's severe emotional distress, humiliation, embarrassment and self-loathing that contributed to his suicide.

Joseph Matteliano, an attorney for the school district, declined to comment after jurors rendered the verdict beyond saying, "the jury spoke."

At the end of five days of testimony, Matteliano argued the evidence did not fit the family's narrative that bullying resulted in his suicide.

Matteliano pointed to the dozens of text messages Gregory sent to his ex-girlfriend hours before his death, threatening to kill himself if she kept ignoring his messages.

The two had broken up about two weeks earlier, and Gregory wanted to rekindle the relationship with the then-14-year-old girl, the district's lawyers said.

The verdict followed a plea to jurors from Keri Spring's attorney that they hold the school district accountable for the "unrelenting bullying" endured by the 17-year-old student.

"You can't change what happened to Gregory Spring," Bosman said in her closing argument. "But you can acknowledge it. You can say to them, pay attention. Do your job."

Keri Spring testified the school district's staff, including the former high school principal, minimized, dismissed or ignored requests from her and Gregory for help. In the case tried before U.S. District Judge John L. Sinatra Jr., Gregory's parents and sister said the school district failed to protect him from bullying and discrimination because of his disabilities.

Some students mocked and mimicked his facial tics, frequent eye blinking and vocal outbursts, among his other Tourette syndrome symptoms, his mother said.

Keri Spring told jurors that her son's disability meant he "could not really control his impulses."

That apparently was a factor in the jury's decision to award $25,000 to his estate over his getting kicked off the school's junior varsity baseball team.

On April 5, 2012, Gregory and other players were involved in horseplay that involved striking each other in the groin, according to the lawsuit.

The school district disputes students were playing such a game, but said Gregory kicked one student so hard that the student went to his knees and cried. Christopher Kenyon, the coach, told Gregory to sit on the bench, and on the way there, Gregory cursed and yelled to the coach, "you can suck it," Kenyon told jurors.

Kenyon testified he suspended Gregory from the team "for the way he acted after he kicked the other player." Kenyon said Gregory's outburst showed "total disrespect in front of the other players."

What Gregory said to the coach was a manifestation of his disabilities — the lack of control over his impulses — that the school district needed to account for under the Americans with Disabilities Act, among other laws, Bosman said.

"I think it's very significant that they recognized that he was discriminated against on the basis of his disability by being thrown off of a baseball team for something he couldn't control," Bosman said of the verdict. "I think that's also a vindication of Gregory."

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