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Gay teen killed himself after endless bullying at central Pa. school: mom’s lawsuit

  • Christine Vendel/PennLive
Zachary's mom shared this photo as one of her favorites.

Zachary's mom shared this photo as one of her favorites.

The mother of a 15-year-old boy who died by suicide in 2021 is suing the Red Lion School District and six of her son’s former classmates after she says they failed to stop bullying and sexual harassment that played a role in his death.

Zachary Kirchner died in his basement in southeastern York County on April 20, 2021 after sharing with classmates that he wanted to end his life on that day.

“Student defendants relentlessly harassed, belittled and broke down decedent by telling him to ‘kill yourself’” according to the lawsuit, and for Zachary to do a ‘charity’ for them by dying by suicide.

The students bullied Zachary after he came out as gay in 8th grade and also targeted him because of his disabilities, which included autism and other disabilities and medical conditions, according to the lawsuit filed last week by his mom Hope Amspacher. She is working with the law firm of Andreozzi + Foote in Harrisburg.

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The school district did not protect or properly react to complaints of bullying and instead, “further emboldened” the student harassers by punishing Zachary, the lawsuit claims.

Zachary’s brother saw the bullying and the impact it was having on Zachary. One day, he reported to the principal and assistant principal that a group of students were calling Zachary a slur for gay people, the lawsuit said.

The administrators told the brother to “mind his own business,” according to the lawsuit. The district had “actual notice” of the incessant bullying due to his sexual orientation, the lawsuit said, noting that someone had scrawled “Zach K is a (slur,)” on a bathroom stall door. The large letters remained on the door even after Zachary’s death, the lawsuit said.

A school district spokesman told PennLive they could not comment on pending litigation.

Zachary’s mother said the bullying and abuse prompted self-harming behaviors and an initial suicide attempt by Zachary in December of 2020. He was hospitalized for several days and the school district was aware of the attempt to end his life, the lawsuit said.

The bullying continued, according to the lawsuit, and his brother, who attended the same school, had a front-row seat to the “psychological torture in real time,” the lawsuit said.

The abuse happened during school hours and on school properties, the lawsuit said, and caused Zachary to have “outbursts,” that were exacerbated by his autism. School officials punished Zachary for his behavior but did “nothing to intervene to stop the abuse” by the other students, the lawsuit said.

On one occasion, a teacher forced Zachary to “reset” by sitting him among a circle of his classmates while they took turns telling him all of the things they did not like about him, according to the lawsuit.

Zachary’s mom shared this photo as one of her favorites.

The lawsuit lays out seven specific counts under Pennsylvania and federal laws that allege the school district failed to respond adequately to sexual harassment and disability-based bullying, and did not address deficiencies in Zachary’s Individualized Education Plan and those failures led to Zachary being deprived of an education.

Some of the counts focus on the students’ behavior and taunts as being “recklessly indifferent to the risk of harm.”

One of the specific allegations in the lawsuit was that Zachary’s brother was harmed by school officials when they took him out of chemistry class on April 20, 2021 after concerns were raised about Zachary’s well-being that day. Zachary had not yet shown up to school.

The school counselor and school resource officer drove the 16-year-old brother to his home in a police vehicle and had him go inside and search for Zachary, according to the lawsuit. As the adults stood in the living room, the brother found Zachary bleeding and hanging from a noose in their basement.

The students’ conduct continued even after Zachary’s death, according to the lawsuit, with one of the student defendants circulating a yearbook photo of Zachary on social media on the 1-year anniversary of his death. The photo had a piece of rope placed across his neck. The caption said: “Can’t believe 1 year, rope still ain’t break,” with a flexing arm emoji and a smiling face emoji wearing sunglasses.

Zachary’s brother saw this “horrific photograph” mocking his little brother’s suicide. He eventually dropped out of Red Lion’s high school, the lawsuit said.

“Zach had an amazing smile and loved to make everyone laugh, even if you were having a bad day,” his obituary said. “He was a 9th grader at Red Lion High School who was high functioning on the autism spectrum and had dreams of attending UCLA because of their gymnastics program.”

The obituary published in 2021 continued: “He was an amazing gymnast and loved skiing in the winter and riding roller coasters in the summer. His love for his family was deep and his kindness went beyond words. Zach was a supporter of LGBTQ rights and believed that everyone should be treated equally, no matter what your race, religion, or sexual orientation, may be. His life was cut tragically short when the bullying that he was being subjected to, became more than he could bear. His family wants everyone to know what a wonderful person this world has lost.”

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