Live Long and Prosper
A Howard County coroner’s jury ruled Tuesday that a 17-year-old’s December suicide was caused by involuntary manslaughter, the result of harassment he suffered at work and at school, placing principal blame on the teen’s former manager at Dairy Queen in Fayette.
The verdict was announced after a daylong coroner’s inquest in which witnesses described widespread bullying at the Glasgow School District and said administrators were reluctant to address the problem. After the verdict was read, a Howard County sheriff’s deputy left the courtroom to arrest Harley Branham, one of Kenneth Suttner’s managers when he worked at Dairy Queen, on suspicion of involuntary manslaughter.
Special prosecutor April Wilson said Branham will be placed on a 24-hour hold. Wilson said she plans to meet with the judge who appointed her, Mason Gebhardt, to see whether she will continue to work on the case, and if so, she will make a decision on what charges to file. Wilson, a private attorney based in Memphis, Mo., and a former assistant prosecutor in Boone County, was put on the case after Howard County Prosecuting Attorney Stephen Murrell recused himself.
A Glasgow High School junior, Suttner shot himself in the head in the early morning of Dec. 21 outside his family’s home in Howard County. Many people who testified at the inquest said he had been bullied for years.
The six-person jury, five men and a woman, deliberated for about an hour before coming to a decision. Coroner inquests are public hearings in which the jury, chosen beforehand, hears testimony and reviews evidence before making a recommendation to the prosecutor on what it believes to be the underlying cause of death and whether criminal charges should be filed.
The jury also found that Dairy Queen was negligent in training its employees and that the Glasgow School District was negligent in failing to prevent bullying. Shortly after the verdict was read, Wilson read a brief statement from the family to reporters in which the family said they hope the district finally will recognize the pervasive problem of bullying and address it.
“They really feel that was Kenny’s voice today, and they feel like it’s justice for Kenny,” Wilson said.
At Suttner’s job, Branham repeatedly ridiculed him and made him do tasks she didn’t have others do, including cleaning the floor by hand while lying on his stomach, former co-workers said. She once threw a cheeseburger at Suttner because he made it incorrectly, Allison Bennett, a former co-worker, said.
Branham testified briefly, denying she had ever bullied Suttner or made him do anything meant to demean or embarrass him. Any insults she said to Suttner were done in jest, she said, and he took it in stride.
“There’s a lot of people at Dairy Queen saying I was the reason” he killed himself, Branham said, “but I don’t understand why it would be that way.”
Lexie Graves, who said Suttner was her best friend, testified she had seen students pick on Suttner in virtually every area of the school building.
“A lot of people, kids, made fun of the way — basically everything about him,” Graves said, including his weight, a speech impediment, the way he walked and how he acted.
She only reported the bullying once, Graves said, because usually nothing would happen when it was reported. Her mother, Chanda Graves, said her son also had experienced bullying at the school, at least once by a teacher who also had ridiculed Suttner. Meeting with administrators did not help, Chanda Graves said.
Glasgow School District Superintendent Mike Reynolds also took the stand, admitting that bullying happens in the district, but he said it is not a systemic problem.
Howard County Coroner Frank Flaspohler said this was the fifth time he had called an inquest in the 24 years he has served as coroner. He said he decided to do an inquest because bullying is a public safety problem.
“If we don’t take care of bullying, we’re going to have more of these,” he said.