Sometime between midnight and 1:00 a.m., four days before Christmas, high school junior, Kenneth Suttner, 17, pointed a .22 caliber gun at his head and fired. By most reports–particularly from high school classmates and former coworkers–Suttner was bullied for months, maybe years, at school, and even at his job at a Dairy Queen in Fayette, Missouri. This week, a Howard County, Missouri coroner’s jury concluded that’s why he killed himself, and they recommend that at least one person be criminally responsible.
It’s been reported by the Columbia Tribune in Missouri that Suttner’s 21-year-old manager at Dairy Queen, Harley Branham, was particularly hard on him. For example, she made him scrub the floor while lying on his stomach. Former coworkers have reported that Branham made Suttner do tasks that humiliated him, and that Suttner told them she made him want to kill himself. Suttner was ridiculed for a speech impediment, being overweight, and even the way he walked. Branham, by the way, denies bullying and harassing Suttner; she says anything she did was in jest.
Frank Flaspohler, the Howard County, Missouri Coroner, convened the coroner’s inquest–a rare public inquiry–into Suttner’s death. This was only the fifth inquest in the 24 years that Flaspohler has been coroner. He decided to hold the inquest to raise awareness about bullying which he considers a public safety problem.
The inquest looks like a grand jury but is public and has fewer jurors. In the Suttner death investigation, there were six jurors–five men and one woman. About twenty witnesses testified under questioning by a prosecutor. Jurors were called upon to determine the cause and manner of death, and make recommendations.
After a one hour deliberation, the jury recommended that criminal charges of involuntary manslaughter be filed against Harley Branham whom, they concluded, was the primary reason Suttner killed himself. The jury also noted that Dairy Queen was negligent in training its employees about harassment and that Suttner’s Glasgow High School was negligent in bullying prevention.
Branham was, indeed, charged and is out on $25,000 bond. Her next court date is February 14, 2017. Glasgow School District issued a statement (coming soon) that is critical of the coroner’s jury’s recommendation that the school was negligent. The School District claims it did not know that Suttner was being bullied.
Harley Branham is no longer working at Dairy Queen.
On a personal note, I was often frustrated, sometimes reduced to tears, as a teen when I witnessed, or heard about, how my two bothers were bullied in elementary and high school. They didn’t look like their classmates for their bodies were affected by a rare genetic disorder. They could walk but not run and, by the end of their lives (ages 34 and 46), they could no longer walk. I have NO TOLERANCE for bullies and anyone who ignores them, including school personnel.
Kenneth Suttner’s story breaks my heart and reopens those old wounds. I can only hope his tragic death shines a spotlight on all victims of bullying and harassment.