Lawsuit: Duluth school stood by as bullies drove 13-year-old to kill himself

Todd Seehus' lawyer says the bullies at school laughed when they heard Tristan had killed himself.

Todd Seehus' lawyer says the bullies at school laughed when they heard Tristan had killed himself.

Tristan Seehus was just 13 years old, in his third year at Lincoln Park Middle School in Duluth, when he decided that he no longer wanted to live. 

For years, he and his group of friends were the target of bullies who called them names, shoved them into lockers, knocked books out of their hands, and beat them up in the halls of Lincoln Park. Tristan wasn't gay, according to his father Todd, but the bullies fixated on ridiculing the boy's perceived manliness, subjecting him to a constant chorus of "gay," "queer," "freak," "homo," "fag," "emo," and more. 

All this happened in plain view of school staff and surveillance cameras, according to a lawsuit that Todd filed against the Duluth school district. He and other parents frequently complained to the school about the incessant bullying of their kids, with some families placing as many as 100 calls throughout a school year. The school did nothing, according to the suit, choosing instead to "ignore, minimize, and dismiss abusive behavior."

"The harassment of Tristan (and other students) was known by, and reported to, [school officials] on multiple occasions, but [school officials] refused to take prompt correction action to stop the abuse," according to the suit. 

On February 12, 2015, Tristan killed himself. He'd had enough. 

The school should have seen it coming, the lawsuit alleges. Todd is now suing the former principal Denise Clairmont, current principal Brenda Vatthauer, assistant principal Jacob Hintsala, and dean of students Joanna Walters for allegedly standing by as Tristan and his friends were brutalized day after day. 

Lincoln Park principal Vatthauer did not return a request for comment. The school previously issued a statement to media saying that it has "policies" to deal with bullying. 

"Other parents have expressed extreme frustration at the school administration for repeatedly brushing off bullying complaints," says attorney Lori Peterson, who is representing Todd. "They were told, over and over, that something would be done to stop the harassment, verbal and physical, of their children, but it did not stop. Kids have literally had to leave the district."

"Since this case was filed, I have heard from more folks who have had children bullied in that school district. What is most disturbing is a report that Tristan’s bullies were laughing [at school] after hearing that he had committed suicide. Clearly, this district needs serious oversight, as it is not enforcing any type of anti-bullying policy. No kid should have to endure this kind of misery simply to get an education."

Peterson previously handled the notorious bullying-suicide case of Isaiah Gatimu, a black Iron Range teenager whose Greenway High School classmates beat him with a switch, blocked him from water fountains they said only white kids could use, and threatened to lynch him. In that case, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights found that school officially were coldly callous to Gatimu's tanking health and happiness.

"So upsetting," Peterson says. "I've been getting more and more bullying cases, and it is heartbreaking."