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Wrongful death suit against school system in gym mat death

Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson stand next to a banner on their SUV showing their late son, Kendrick Johnson, on Dec. 13, 2013, in Valdosta, Ga. AP Photo/Russ Bynum

Last Updated Jul 29, 2014 3:35 PM EDT

VALDOSTA, Ga. - The parents of Kendrick Johnson, the Georgia teen found dead inside a rolled-up gym mat in his high school gymnasium last January, have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against local school administrators alleging their negligence led to his death at the hands of one or more other students.

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 while trying to retrieve a shoe and became trapped. An autopsy conducted by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation 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 Monday in Lowndes County Superior Court seeks to hold the county school board, school superintendent and the principal of Lowndes High School responsible for the teen's death. It says Johnson died "at the hands of one or more students while upon the property of Lowndes High School and during its normal hours of operation."

The school board's attorney, Warren Turner, said in a statement obtained by CBS News' Crimesider on Tuesday that the school district has not received the suit and therefore, "it would be premature and inappropriate to make a public comment."

U.S. Attorney Michael Moore ordered a federal review of Johnson's death Oct. 31. No findings have been released nine months later.

This isn't the first lawsuit filed on behalf of Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson in connection with their son's death. In February, they filed a lawsuit against the funeral home that handled their son's remains alleging the home intentionally disposed of their son's organs in an effort to interfere with the investigation into his death and two months later, in May, they filed a lawsuit against the school board claiming it failed to protect their son from bullying, harassment and discrimination, which they argue led to his death.

Both lawsuits against the school allege Johnson had been in a fight with another student during a bus trip to a football game a year before his death. The Johnsons contend the school board failed to "properly investigate" the initial altercation or handle it in an "appropriate manner" 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 lawsuits do not specifically allege that the same student who fought with Johnson on the bus trip had a role in his death. The student is not named in court documents, however, a woman named Karen Bell told the Valdosta Times in February that her youngest son had gotten into a confrontation with Johnson on a school bus 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 Bell's two sons were never considered suspects and that foul play was not suspected in Johnson's death. He said authorities only wanted to speak to the brothers because of rumors.

When the U.S. Attorney reopened the investigation into Johnson's death, 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 sons' behalf.

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

Johnson's parents are seeking unspecified monetary damages from the school system.

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    Stephanie Slifer covers crime and justice for CBSNews.com.

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