DEMOPOLIS, Ala. — McKenzie Adams was 9 years old when she took her own life on Dec. 3, 2018, in her Linden, Alabama, home.
A federal lawsuit filed Thursday by her family alleges that administrators and teachers at her elementary school, U.S. Jones Elementary in Demopolis, failed to protect her from incessant bullying. Demopolis is located in west Alabama, about 60 miles southwest of Tuscaloosa.
“(The defendants) exhibited deliberate and blatant indifference to the wrongful persistent bullying and harassment, rife with racial and gender-based slurs, imparted upon McKenzie by a boy who was her classmate,” the lawsuit states.
Linden and Demopolis police officials investigated the allegations of bullying in the wake of McKenzie’s hanging death but said they could not find the evidence to back up the family’s claims.
The school also denied the allegations that bullying had been reported to administrators by the girl or her family.
"We have concluded our internal investigation to the allegations of bullying which led to this senseless death. There have been no findings of any reports of bullying by either the student or family," a Dec. 11, 2018, statement from the school district said, according to the Tuscaloosa News. "The findings of this internal investigation are consistent with the results of the investigation of the Linden Police Department at this point in time."
McKenzie’s family begged police to reopen the investigation. Her mother and grandmother are adamant that the bullying was reported to school officials multiple times.
"Her case deserves a second look," her weeping mother, Jasmine Adams, said at a news conference last January, according to WBRC in Birmingham. "There are things that could have been missed on the first go-round. And I just feel she deserves a second look at her case."
Hundreds of mourners attended the girl's funeral, which was held in the gymnasium of her school. According to the News, a wreath of flowers spelling out "You are loved, little one" stood near her white casket.
McKenzie, who family members said hoped to be a scientist when she grew up, wore a silver tiara as she was laid to rest.
McKenzie’s mother and grandmother, Janice Adams, filed Thursday’s lawsuit on behalf of the girl, whose death made national headlines.
Named in the lawsuit are the school, the Demopolis school system, Superintendent Kyle Kallhoff, then-U.S. Jones principal Tori Infinger, then-assistant principal Tracy Stewart and fourth-grade teacher Gloria Mims.
Infinger resigned in April 2019, according to the Demopolis Times. It was not immediately clear Friday where Stewart is currently employed, but Mims remains listed as a teacher on the U.S. Jones website.
"The Demopolis City Board of Education has only recently learned of a lawsuit filed against them on behalf of McKenzie Adams," the school system's attorney, Alex Braswell, said in a statement obtained by WSFA in Montgomery. "While we are not permitted to discuss pending litigation, the Demopolis Board of Education can say that we look forward to defending this case and dispelling the allegations made therein."
‘Tell it to the wall because I do not want to hear it’
The lawsuit, which seeks compensatory and punitive damages, alleges that McKenzie, who was enrolled at U.S. Jones Elementary for the 2018-2019 school year, was “targeted and taunted” by a white 9-year-old in her class, who called her the N-word and an “ugly a** bit**.” The abuse took place both in the classroom and in the school gym, her family claims.
“According to information and belief, on Oct. 24, 2018, (the boy) passed a note to McKenzie in which he called her a “bit**” while in the classroom of defendant Mims,” the lawsuit states. He also used sexually explicit terms in the note.
The Adams family believes the abuse stemmed from the fact that McKenzie went to and from school with a white friend and the friend’s mother.
McKenzie wrote in her diary Nov. 5, 2018, that two boys at school had been bullying her, the suit alleges.
“Upon information and belief, on the date of her death, Dec. 3, 2018, (the boy) told McKenzie to kill herself, told her that she was better off dead, and instructed her on the manner to take her own life,” the lawsuit says.
McKenzie’s mother and grandmother say Mims, who was McKenzie’s math teacher at the time of her death, was aware but “deliberately indifferent” to the bullying taking place. Janice Adams, the girl’s grandmother, attempted in August 2018 to set up a meeting with Mims to discuss the ongoing abuse.
“Plaintiff Janice Adams never received a return call from Mims,” the suit states.
She tried again in September to set up a meeting to discuss the abuse and what it was doing to McKenzie’s “state of mind.”
“On Oct. 1, 2018, she received a generic notice that there was no need for a parent-teacher conference,” the lawsuit says.
Progress reports came out that month, and McKenzie’s report indicated she was failing math, the class Mims taught. Ordinarily, her family told media outlets, McKenzie excelled in math.
“Plaintiff Janice Adams was aware that McKenzie was struggling in the course due to emotional challenges resulting from the bullying and harassment that McKenzie was experiencing in her class,” the complaint said. “Concerned about McKenzie’s state of mind, plaintiff Janice Adams went to Mims’ classroom on Oct. 12, 2018, to request a meeting with Mims.
“At that time, Plaintiff Janice Adams identified (the alleged bully), informed Mims that McKenzie was being bullied by him, and asked that the school address the bullying. Plaintiff Janice Adams left her contact information for a follow-up meeting. Mims failed to call her back.”
The lawsuit states that Infinger was present for the meeting and was made aware of the supposed bullying going on in Mims’ classroom. Janice Adams claims the principal failed to act.
On Oct. 24, Mims obtained the harassing note the boy passed McKenzie in class. Mims contacted the girl’s grandmother and told her that, instead of disciplining the boy, McKenzie would be disciplined for responding to the bullying, the lawsuit states.
Talking to law enforcement officials later, Mims admitted that there were two boys, including the one indicated in the lawsuit, who “bothered” everyone in the class, the court document says. Mims told police the boy was “often jumping around and striking other children.”
She called him a “clown” and said the boy was always in trouble. Despite his behavior, the lawsuit alleges, no action was taken to discipline the boy for his harassment of McKenzie.
McKenzie complained to the teacher multiple times about the bullying.
“Upon information and belief, on numerous occasions, Mims instructed McKenzie to ‘tell it to the wall because I do not want to hear it,’” the lawsuit states.
Read the entire federal lawsuit filed on behalf of McKenzie Adams below.
The lawsuit alleges that Mims admitted to law enforcement that she was aware that the boy was engaged in conduct defined as bullying by Demopolis City Schools, that he specifically targeted McKenzie and that McKenzie’s family was concerned about the emotional impact the bullying had on the girl.
“Upon information and belief, Mims was aware that one risk factor for suicidal ideation was bullying,” the suit says.
The complaint states that Mims violated school and district policy by failing to notify Infinger, the principal, or the central office of the first instance of bullying. She also failed to inform them of the continual bullying and failed to take action on her own to stop the harassment, the document says.
“Defendant’s deliberate indifference created a dangerous environment and barred McKenzie’s access to a safe learning environment. As the direct result of Mims’ conduct, McKenzie committed suicide,” the lawsuit alleges.
The lawsuit also blames Infinger’s lack of action for the girl’s death. It states she had actual knowledge of the behavior toward McKenzie and failed to train teachers and administrators on gender- and race-specific bullying.
Stewart is named in the lawsuit because McKenzie’s family alleges that Mims gave the harassing note of Oct. 24, 2018, to the assistant principal and she did nothing to stop the bullying.
“Stewart contacted McKenzie’s family on Oct. 25, 2018, regarding the note,” the lawsuit states. “At that time, plaintiff Janice Adams informed Stewart that McKenzie was being bullied and had been bullied since the commencement of the school year.”
Stewart informed Adams that McKenzie would be punished for responding to the note. It was not clear in the filing what the girl’s response was.
“Following the phone call with plaintiff Janice Adams, Stewart spoke on a three-way phone call with plaintiff Janice Adams and McKenzie’s mother, plaintiff Jasmine Adams, to discuss McKenzie’s discipline regarding the note,” according to the lawsuit. “Plaintiff Jasmine Adams expressed concern about the bullying, the harassment and the fact that McKenzie was being disciplined by U.S. Jones.”
The distraught mother informed Stewart that she planned to contact the State Department about the persistent bullying and harassment.
“Stewart asked plaintiff Jasmine Adams not to contact the State Department and stated that U.S. Jones would handle the matter,” the suit says. “However, U.S. Jones did not handle the matter.”
The lawsuit alleges that the school system did not adhere to state and federal anti-bullying measures. It claims that all the defendants named in the complaint had participated in the Jason Flatt Suicide Prevention Program, a program by The Jason Foundation designed to provide professional development for teachers and youth workers so they can better identify children at risk for suicide.
The foundation was created in 1997 by Clark Flatt after his 16-year-old son, Jason Flatt, died by suicide.
The lawsuit also claims the school and district failed to comply with the Jamari Terrell Williams Bullying Prevention Act, which AL.com reported was enacted to strengthen the state's 2009 anti-harassment law. The act requires schools to define, control, report and stop bullying.
The act is named after 10-year-old Jamari Williams, a gifted Montgomery dancer and honor roll student who took his own life Oct. 11, 2017, after being bullied for "being different," according to the website for a foundation set up in his name.
The federal lawsuit in McKenzie’s death accuses the district of violating Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits harassment based on gender, as well as Title VI, which prohibits discrimination based on race.
The lawsuit also accuses the school system of denying Adams equal protection under the 14th Amendment.
It asks for compensatory damages “in an amount that will fully compensate McKenzie and her family for all they suffered” and such punitive damages that would “properly punish them for the constitutional, statutory and common law violations perpetrated upon McKenzie as alleged herein, in an amount that will serve as a deterrent to defendants and others from engaging in similar conduct in the future.”
Since McKenzie's death, her aunt, Eddwina Harris, has been working to kickstart an anti-bullying organization called the McKenzie Foundation. A GoFundMe page set up to collect donations has raised $12,830 of its $20,000 goal.
A large portion of the work of the McKenzie Foundation appears to be public speaking on the dangers of bullying.
"If you knew your child was at a place where there was a ticking time bomb, you would come and get them out," Eddwina Harris told the News following her niece's funeral. "The time is now to get them out of a dangerous situation."
As for the national publicity McKenzie’s death received, Harris said she believed it would do some good in the wake of tragedy.
"It's touching that one little 9-year-old girl has changed the lives and minds of so many people and it's going to stick with us for the rest of our lives," she said.