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Suit: School dropped ball in Kendrick Johnson's gym-mat death

Jacquelyn Johnson, center left, with her husband, Kenneth, right, at a "Who Killed K.J." rally in memory of their son, Kendrick Johnson, Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2013, in Atlanta. AP Photo/David Goldman

The parents of Kendrick Johnson, the Georgia teen found dead inside a rolled-up wrestling mat in his high school gymnasium last January, have filed a lawsuit against a South Georgia school board claiming it failed to protect their son from bullying, harassment and discrimination, which they argue led to his death.

The lawsuit provides the first glimpse into what Johnson's parents believe led to their son's mysterious death. They say in the lawsuit that he was assaulted and that the injuries he sustained were "foreseeable" since the school was aware of a previous confrontation between Kendrick and another student a year prior. The Johnsons contend the school board failed to "properly investigate" the initial altercation or handle it in an "appropriate manner."

The suit was filed Tuesday in Lowndes County Superior Court by Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson, on behalf of their son's estate, against the Lowndes County Board of Education, as well as Superintendent Wes Taylor, Lowndes High School Principal Jay Floyd and Fred Wetherington, chairman of the school board.

The 17-year-old Johnson was found dead in the gymnasium of Lowndes High School in Valdosta, where he was a student, on January 11, 2013. Authorities initially called his death a freak accident, saying he fell head-first into an upright mat and became trapped. An autopsy conducted by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) concurred.

The case was closed, but Johnson's family insisted there was more to the story and had their son's body exhumed for a second autopsy last summer. It was then that a private pathologist determined the teen died of blunt force trauma to the neck and that his organs were missing and his body had been stuffed with newspaper.

The lawsuit filed Tuesday claims that the school did not properly investigate an incident which took place approximately a year before Kendrick's death and therefore failed to "properly supervise and protect [Kendrick] from further mistreatment and harassment, including, but not limited to, other assaults and fatal injuries."

The lawsuit also alleges the school board violated Title IX by discriminating against Kendrick on the basis of race.

According to the lawsuit, Kendrick was assaulted approximately a year before his death by another student, who remains unnamed, while on a bus trip to an athletic event. The student - who is said to be Caucasian - is alleged to have had a history of "provoking and attacking" Johnson while on school premises.

Jacquelyn Johnson, Kendrick's mother, notified school administrators that her son had been "victimized by the [unnamed student] without just cause and while in the presence of the coaching staff and employees of the Lowndes County School System," the lawsuit says.

The suit goes on to allege that the school bus dispute was not properly investigated or handled in an appropriate manner and that following the dispute, Kendrick Johnson was threatened by the unnamed student's older brother who allegedly said, "it ain't over."

Johnson's parents contend that the school's failure to properly investigate the alleged assault and mistreatment of Kendrick Johnson "caused, encouraged or precipitated the ultimate assault" of their son.

This isn't the first time a school bus fight has been referenced in the Johnson case.

In February, a woman named Karen Bell told the Valdosta Times that her sons, ages 16 and 18, were being harassed and falsely accused on the Internet of murdering Kendrick. She said the allegations stemmed from a YouTube video that claimed a classmate of Kendrick's, whose father works for the FBI, had gotten into a confrontation with Kendrick prior to his death.

Bell, whose husband is an FBI agent, reportedly told the paper that the confrontation likely referred to a disagreement between Kendrick and Bell's youngest son that occurred on a school bus during a varsity football team trip to an away game in 2011.

Bell downplayed the fight, telling the paper her son later laughed about the situation. She said both her sons were devastated when they learned of Kendrick's death.

Bell reportedly told the paper that police attempted to question her sons in the days after Kendrick's death, but she said a family lawyer advised them not to talk because evidence showed they were not involved.

Lowndes Sheriff Lt. Stryde Jones reportedly told the paper that the Bell brothers were never considered suspects and that foul play was not suspected in Kendrick's death. He said authorities only wanted to speak to the brothers because of the rumors.

When U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia Michael Moore reopened the investigation into Kendrick's death in October 2013, and the FBI joined the investigation, the Bell brothers were sought for questioning again, Karen Bell reportedly told the paper. She said she and her husband spoke to the FBI on her son's behalf.

It is unclear whether her sons have since been subpoenaed by a federal grand jury investigating the case.

  • Stephanie Slifer

    Stephanie Slifer covers crime and justice for CBSNews.com.

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