SAN ANTONIO — The mother of a first-grader who killed himself two years ago is suing East Central Independent School District.
Jeffery Taylor was not on campus at the time of his death. However, Lakeshia Chaney believes what happened to him at school may be why he killed himself at home four days before Christmas in 2019.
"I saw my baby laying there, like he normally is," Chaney said. "But when I looked to the left, I saw my gun."
Chaney spoke exclusively with KENS 5 Eyewitness News in May 2020 about the events surrounding her son's death. On the advice of her attorneys, Blerim Elmazi and Bredric Berry, they are speaking for her now.
The Dallas- and Houston-based attorneys said the allegations in this case resonated with them and shocked the conscience. They said other attorneys had turned down Chaney, who thought the civil remedies were too challenging to pursue.
"Someone needed to stand up for Jeffery," Elmazi said. "Put the spotlight on this school district and their policies."
A tragic discovery
Chaney said her son, Jeffery, found her gun hidden in a Bible case under her bed at their home in the 6300 block of Channel View in San Antonio.
She and her husband, Jermaine, said they accept responsibility for the 7-year-old boy finding her weapon. The couple said they never shared gun ownership details with their children.
In the May interview, Chaney said her son told her that school kids called him a racial slur and bullied him. She claims his teacher overlooked her son's outcry, which contributed to his death.
"I was screaming. I just kept saying, 'Jeffery, why?'" Chaney said. "I told you to hold on. I was going to take care of it."
The lawsuit filed in Federal Court for the Western District of Texas alleges racial discrimination and the inability to instruct a student with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
"The school district (officials) were aware that Jeffrey was diagnosed with ADHD," Elmazi said. "They, of course, failed to accommodate that through their actions."
The lawsuit said Jeffery was the only Black student in his class, and he became the target of persistent bullying. The suit alleges his teacher never reported the occurrences as required by school policy.
The document said his teacher even segregated him from the rest of the students, restricting his learning ability.
"He was very adamant that he did not want to go back to school. He begged... He begged me that day," Chaney said. "Please don't send me back. I said, 'I'm not.'"
Jeffery's 'life was taken... unjustly'
Before she could address the issue, Jeffery shot himself in his bedroom either the night of December 20 or in the early hours of December 21.
San Antonio Police called the shooting a tragic accident and chose not to pursue charges against the parents.
According to an autopsy performed by the Bexar County Medical Examiner's Office, there were no witnesses to Jeffery's death.
The report concluded that the gun barrel was close to the child's head but was not held against his skin when it was fired. Death investigators concluded Jeffery's death was an accident with no clear evidence of foul play or suicide.
His mother said her son's words are the proof.
"The evidence itself will speak to the fact that the life was taken," Berry said. "It was taken unjustly as a result of the negligence of the district and as a result of the acts of the teacher."
Berry said Jeffery was a boy and not an expert at handling a gun. They believe the first-grader was at a level of trauma that became suicidal. His mother sought answers from the school system.
Differing accounts of bullying
KENS 5 obtained documents from East Central ISD through a public records request made by WXIA-TV's 11 Alive, our TEGNA sister station in Atlanta.
Documents reveal on January 8, the day after Jeffery's funeral, the principal of Salado Elementary School sent a letter to Chaney saying an investigation did not uncover any racial slurs or harsh name-calling toward her son. The principal's probe included students who sat near Jeffery and played with him during recess.
She also spoke with cafeteria monitors, other teachers and a physical education coach. None could validate the claims.
They did find Jeffery and one of his friends disagreed with the exclusivity of the friendship, which resulted in a seating difference on the bus.
The documents also revealed the parent of a female classmate alleged bullying by Jeffery against her daughter. Her child, per the document, said their teacher dismissed the child by saying, "Don't gossip to me."
Records also show a Parent-Teacher conference sheet asking Chaney to address her son's bossiness and to encourage him to be kind to other classmates.
"Anyone who claims that their child was bullied in this instance, their child is still alive," Berry said. "In this situation, this young man has taken his life, and he's taking his life because the bullying and the racial harassment got so outraged that he couldn't take it anymore."
School district reaction
Documents also indicate that Chaney was not the only parent who had a problem with the way East Central ISD handles bullying and harassment. There are dozens of grievances where the outcome is unknown because East Central won't talk about them.
Also in the documents, a letter to the system's upper brass from the parent of a child who was a school friend to Jeffery. She wrote to the district in January 2020 because she was concerned about how she and her husband were going to explain "...he was never going to see Jeffery again."
According to the letter, before the parents could come up with a strategy, their child learned about Jeffery's death "...from another 6-year-old child."
"I asked a school employee if a memorial was going to be held in Jeffery's honor. Her response was no because it would cause chaos with the students. I asked her if Jeffery's parents had a say, and her response was no," the parent wrote.
ECISD wrote to the parent just as they responded to KENS 5 about Jeffery's death. Superintendent Roland Toscano wrote about offering counseling services to the parent.
East Central ISD's statement
In a statement on Eyewitness News' initial report in May, the district said it provided extensive support to friends and Jeffery's classmates. Here's the entire statement:
"East Central ISD profoundly mourns the loss of Jeffery Taylor. He was a bright and well-liked student and we still, to this day, are in shock and disbelief over this tragedy. Our tight-knit community is filled with love, sorrow and remembrance for Jeffery and his family. We continue to express our deepest condolences to his family, and our community is united in our compassion for healing and strength.
We are saddened to hear about the allegations as any form of bullying, harassment, or violence is taken seriously and follows required state law, board policy and District procedures. The District completed a thorough investigation with many teachers, staff, and classmates to determine if any bullying occurred. The investigation did not produce information to corroborate the allegations. The findings of the investigation were in a letter sent to the family on January 8, 2020.
We investigated the allegations further at three levels: Salado Elementary, student services and the superintendent. All investigations did not support the allegations.
Approximately a little over a month before the incident occurred in 2019, Jeffery's teacher had a regularly scheduled parent conference with the mother. Bullying was never mentioned in the parent conference. No reports or complaints were ever filed or brought to the attention of Jeffery's teacher, school or District office.
East Central ISD provides ongoing training to its staff regarding bullying prevention and identification. Jeffery's teacher had completed this training prior to the incident.
After Jeffery's passing, East Central ISD offered counseling and bereavement services to the Taylor family multiple times. The District also provided extensive support to friends and classmates of Jeffery.
East Central ISD stands proudly united in our commitment to inclusion and diversity. Our schools participate in lessons regarding bullying prevention every October and offer many events for the students and community regarding inclusion. Our East Central Police Department has an active presence daily on campuses and promotes "see something, say something" as part of Operation Safe Schools. Our equity committee and taskforce continue to be proactive in assessing that our system protocols and procedures continue to be equitable and inclusive.
East Central ISD again expresses its deepest condolences and continues to be a source of support and healing."
KENS 5 seeks details
In December, KENS 5 requested documents, letters, emails or text messages to show the district's counseling effort, a copy of any letters sent home to parents regarding Jeffery's death, and the number of staff and students who took advantage of counseling resources.
Plus, KENS 5 requested an interview with the superintendent. Here is the district's response:
"We do not have documentation responsive to your requests. Communications regarding this tragedy and the services and assistance provided by the school were done in person or over the phone. We also decline the request for an interview."
From the existing public records request, there is an email from ECISD's executive director of student and community services, four days after the parent's letter of concern, stating "...We've gotten some negative feedback from a different parent on our response to the situation. We need to huddle up tomorrow and draft a letter to parents, maybe. I'll call you."
According to documents from the system, a social worker from ECISD did send Chaney a resource guide on support and guidance during her grief.
The school district filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. No date is set to determine whether a judge will allow Chaney to seek the remedies she believes are due for her son's death.
Special series: A Different Cry
Jeffery Taylor's story is included in "A Different Cry," a digital series that focuses on the rising suicide rate of Black youth in America. The series will be released on our Roku and Fire TV streaming apps on Sunday, January 23. Then on Tuesday, February 1, at 6:30 p.m., we'll premiere a 30-minute special on our streaming apps. Download the KENS 5 app on your Roku or Amazon Fire TV device today.