Lincoln Park -- The mother of a 12-year-old girl who committed suicide five months ago has filed a $10-million lawsuit against the Lincoln Park School District, claiming school administrators turned a blind eye to students who teased the girl about her religious beliefs.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court Tuesday, also charges the school district with religious discrimination.
School district officials could not be reached for comment. Randall Kite, superintendent of the Lincoln Park School District, did not return several phone calls.
After Lincoln Park Middle School student Tempest Smith hanged herself from her bunk bed on Feb. 20, many of the girl's classmates came to the funeral expressing guilt for having teased her so relentlessly. Much of the teasing revolved around Tempest's belief in Wicca, a pagan religion.
According to Tempest's journal, found under her bed after the suicide, her classmates often crowded around her chanting "Jesus loves you," along with other comments that ridiculed her Wiccan beliefs.
Attorneys for Tempest's mother, Denessa Smith, claim school employees violated the girl's civil rights because they knew about the teasing, but did nothing to stop it. That indifference contributed to the girl's suicide, they claim.
"If it would've been a Christian kid being teased, you can bet they would've done something," said Smith's attorney, Joel Sklar. "But the Lincoln Park School District has historically discriminated against followers of Wicca."
Sklar referred to a 1999 case in which high school student Crystal Seifferly sued the Lincoln Park School District because she was banned from wearing jewelry depicting the five-pointed star that is the symbol of pagan faith. In that case, a U.S. district judge ruled that the district's policy violated Seifferly's religious rights, and the school district's ban on Wiccan jewelry was overturned.
"Tempest Smith had a right to practice her religion without being taunted in school," Sklar said. "And the school staff had a duty to respond to that taunting. They didn't. We contend that the school district has shown a pattern of indifference, and perhaps hostility, to those students who follow another religion that's not Judeo-Christian in nature."
Denessa Smith said she told her daughter's teachers and counselors about the teasing. "We had several conversations about what my daughter was going through," Smith said. "I was trying to get them to do something about it. But nobody did anything."
Smith hopes the lawsuit will force the school district to adopt anti-teasing measures. "There should be rules in place, so that children in the future won't have to experience what my daughter went through," Smith said.
Since The Detroit News covered Tempest's suicide in March, the case has received national attention. The ABC news magazine show 20/20 interviewed Denessa Smith last week for a segment which is scheduled to air this fall. Other nationally syndicated television and radio shows have contacted Smith, asking her to appear on their programs.