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Parent of student who died by suicide files lawsuit against Duluth school district

The parent of a Lincoln Park Middle School student who took his own life last year filed a lawsuit alleging the Duluth school district did nothing to stop "severe and pervasive harassment" in the school. (file photo / News Tribune)

A federal lawsuit filed by the parent of a Lincoln Park Middle School student alleges his son's 2015 suicide was the result of "severe and pervasive harassment" — and the Duluth school district's failure to stop it.

Todd Seehus is suing the Duluth school district, its school board and former and current administrators at the school because of their alleged disregard of complaints about students bullying Tristan Seehus, 13, who killed himself in February 2015.

Tristan was harassed verbally and physically because of his perceived sexual orientation or gender expression, according to the complaint, filed Friday in U.S. District Court.

Tristan was a student at the school from September 2012 until his suicide in February 2015.

During that time, the complaint alleges, Tristan was physically threatened and attacked, and subjected to anti-gay and gender-related slurs, all of which caused "severe emotional and physical distress." The response of district officials, the complaint said, "was to ignore, minimize and dismiss abusive behavior," and was a form of discrimination.

"Tristan's suicide was a foreseeable result of Defendants' failure to provide him a safe educational environment," the complaint says.

The complaint says Tristan did not identify as gay, but was perceived as gay by other students.

It alleges harassment of him that included being pushed into lockers, having books knocked out of his hands and being called "freak" and told he "looked like a girl." Such behavior was repeatedly reported to school officials, but it continued until Tristan took his own life, the lawsuit claims, also stating that the attacks directed at Tristan "occurred on school grounds and some occurred in plain view of school officials and school surveillance cameras."

The district "failed to enforce any existing policies or procedures" to protect Tristan from being bullied, the suit states, and treated Tristan differently than other "similarly situated students on the basis of actual or perceived orientation."

The lawsuit outlines four counts, and Todd Seehus is seeking damages in excess of $75,000 per defendant, per count.

He also is seeking policy changes, including:

• requiring the district to begin mandatory training programs for staff and students relating to diversity and prevention of bullying toward LGBT students or those who are perceived to be

• adoption of policies that instruct staff on responding to student harassment complaints as a result of the student's sexual orientation or gender expression

• having the district conduct student assemblies meant to address homophobia and tolerance

• assigning a peer mediator who would address harassment and discrimination issues at school

• maintaining records of each harassment complaint made to staff

The school district released a statement Tuesday that reads:

"The death of a young person is especially devastating. As educators, we work with the community to provide support to students and staff and assist with the questions and grief which accompany such a loss.

While we can't comment specifically on the litigation, it's important to know that our schools endeavor to create an environment where all students are treated with respect and to validate the rights of all students to a safe and welcoming environment.

As an organization, we've included community input in creating policies and practices that align with Minnesota's Safe and Supportive Schools Act and federal harassment laws that include gender identity and inclusion. We continue to seek guidance from the Minnesota Department of Education, the Minnesota School Boards Association and the Minnesota State High School League in an ongoing effort to create safe, supportive environments for all students. Any litigation will be referred to legal counsel for review and appropriate response."

Calls to Todd Seehus' attorney were not returned Tuesday.

The district in 2014 adopted a new bullying prevention policy that better details the steps that should be taken by school officials upon receiving a complaint, and dictates more training for staff and students. All public school districts were mandated by the state to enact new policies.

As part of that, the district began reporting to the School Board the numbers of referrals regarding bullying that it receives each year, which are documented for the state. The number for the 2014-15 school year — the year Tristan died — was 78 for the district of about 8,300 students. District officials have said that's not inclusive of all complaints, as not every complaint rises to the threshold of documentation. This past school year, the number was 77.

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