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Elkhart Schools parents, students demand district do more to prevent bullying after student suicide

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Nicole Ball, the mother of Rio Allred, speaks to the Elkhart Community Schools board during the March 22 meeting.

Elkhart Community Schools parents and students are demanding the district do more to prevent bullying after a North Side Middle School student took her own life last week.

Hundreds of North Side students walked out of classes Tuesday morning for a 45-minute rally against bullying, and during a Tuesday night meeting of the Elkhart Community Schools board, multiple parents and students said the district needs to make changes.

According to her obituary, 12-year-old Rio Allred loved art, the outdoors and making people laugh. But her mother Nicole Ball said she was frequently bullied at school after developing alopecia, an autoimmune disease that caused her to lose her hair.

Ball told WNDU-TV last week that students had ripped off Rio’s wig multiple times. She said Tuesday that she told school officials about the bullying, but the district failed to stop it.

“When my Rio was first attacked, my first instinct was to go into that office and knock stuff off of the counter,” Ball said. “But I knew I would not be taken seriously. Instead, I went through what I thought were the correct things.”

But Ball said ECS failed Rio, who took her own life on March 14.

“I know and we expect people to blame us — that’s OK, let them. We know better — Rio knew that she was loved by people who accepted her for who she is,” Ball said. “I have two questions. Did you do enough? And what are you going to change? Because what you are doing is not working.”

Corgan Hammond, a student at North Side Middle School, said bullying issues have been reported multiple times, but the school has done “little to nothing” about it, which she said is “absolutely unacceptable.”

“I was really close friends with the student we lost recently, and I refuse to let this fade away like any other incident,” Corgan said. “If it takes hundreds of students, hundreds of townspeople to acknowledge it, then why can’t you?”

In response, Superintendent Steve Thalheimer said district officials are working to improve the district’s bullying reporting and investigation processes.

To honor Rio’s memory, the family has created Rio’s Rainbow, an organization that will work to end school bullying, and has also set up a GoFundMe to cover funeral expenses. A Celebration of Life service was held on Monday, March 21.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

Elkhart Community Schools is the license holder of WVPE.

Contact Jakob at jlazzaro@wvpe.org or follow him on Twitter at @JakobLazzaro.

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Jakob Lazzaro comes to Indiana from Chicago, where he graduated from Northwestern University in 2020 with a degree in Journalism and a double major in History. Before joining WVPE, he wrote NPR's Source of the Week e-mail newsletter, and previously worked for CalMatters, Pittsburgh's 90.5 WESA and North by Northwestern.