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Family of Rio Allred files wrongful death lawsuit against Elkhart Community Schools

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Rio's Rainbow
Rio Allred

The family of a 12-year-old Elkhart student who took her own life earlier this year has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Elkhart Community Schools.

Rio Allred died by suicide on March 14. Her family has said she was the victim of bullying after she developed alopecia, an autoimmune disease that causes hair loss.

In the complaint, which was filed in federal court Thursday, mother Nicole Ball alleges Elkhart Community Schools violated Title IX and the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.

It says the district did not follow its own written policies on bullying and sexual harassment and created a hostile learning environment by failing to address bullying Allred faced due to her hair loss and sexual orientation as a lesbian.

The complaint alleges that several weeks after the start of the 2021 school year, students began repeatedly calling Allred derogatory names such as “Mr. Clean,” ''Caillou,” a “naked mole rat” and a “bug-eyed alien.”

She was also physically assaulted multiple times by other students, including having her wig pulled off. The incidents were reported, but the complaint alleges the family does not know if any disciplinary actions were taken in response during the seven months prior to Allred’s death.

The complaint says that on March 2, Allred and her family met with North Side Middle School’s counselor and social worker. Allred stated she was still being bullied, described the abuse and named several students as top offenders.

The complaint says school officials promised to contact the parents of those students and get back to Allred’s family, but the school did not do so before her death on March 14.

It also says that a male student who attended band class with Allred also had alopecia and lost all his hair but did not face any harassment and was instead “popular and well-liked.”

During a May 24 school board meeting, the complaint says Assistant Superintendent Sarita Stevens stated each school in the district has staff charged with investigating reports of bullying and determining whether they meet the legal definition of “bullying” under Indiana law.

Stevens, according to the complaint, said school administrators consider most of the incidents reported as “conflicts” between students, as opposed to harassment or bullying.

But the complaint alleges calling such incidents “conflicts” does not change the actual nature of the conduct or its impact on victims.

The district’s anti-harassment and bullying policies do not define “conflict” but do prohibit sex discrimination, bullying and harassment — and the complaint alleges the incidents Allred faced fall “squarely within the District’s own definition of ‘sexual harassment.’”

Allred’s death led to a student walkout and calls for the school district to do more to address student bullying. The seventh-grader’s family and friends also founded Rio’s Rainbow, a nonprofit dedicated to ending school bullying.

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.