KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- A rare investigation requested by a Missouri coroner has resulted in prosecutors being asked to file manslaughter charges against a Dairy Queen manager accused of bullying a 17-year-old employee who killed himself.
The Howard County coroner sought an official inquest into the teenager’s December death, a process similar to a grand jury investigation but public. Such investigations can be sought if a coroner believes a death could be related to a continuing safety and health hazard.
The manager told jurors during the inquest that she never bullied or humiliated the teen, and that he never seemed bothered by jokes. Other witnesses said the boy had been bullied for years at school and at work before he shot himself outside his family’s home.
The case’s special prosecutor, April Wilson, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that she’s considering whether to file charges. She said jurors assembled to hear the case listened to more than six hours of testimony from nearly 20 witnesses before recommending the charge on Tuesday.
The manger was put on a 24-hour hold. A publicly listed home phone number for the manager couldn’t be found Wednesday by the AP.
“We wanted to be very cautious and responsible,” Wilson said. “Both sides of the issue are extremely important. A young man is dead. But we also want to acknowledge that it’s not easy being in public education.”
The jurors concluded that negligence from the Fayette store and the Glasgow School District contributed to the death. Wilson said the district’s and Dairy Queen’s alleged negligence would not lead to criminal charges but could give rise to civil actions. A Dairy Queen representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment from the AP.
Wilson also noted that jurors believed the manager was the “primary actor” in the boy’s death and did not name any other individuals.
The Columbia Daily Tribune newspaper reported that former co-workers testified that the manager repeatedly ridiculed the teen and made him perform humiliating tasks, such as cleaning the floor by hand while lying on his stomach.
During the inquest, the manager testified that she never bullied or humiliated the teen, and that any insults were jokes that didn’t seem to bother him, according to the newspaper.
“There’s a lot of people at Dairy Queen saying I was the reason (he killed himself),” she said. “But I don’t understand why it would be that way.”
The boy’s best friend, Lexie Graves, testified that her friend was picked on at school for “basically everything about him,” including his weight, a speech impediment and how he acted. She said she reported the bullying only once because nothing happened when it was reported.
Three parents also testified that bullying was pervasive in the district, including from some teachers, and that school leaders didn’t respond to their complaints.
Glasgow School District Superintendent Mike Reynolds acknowledged on the stand that bullying occurs in the district, but he said it is not a systemic problem.
Coroners have discretion in Missouri to call inquests if someone dies in police custody or if the death could be related to an ongoing safety or health hazard. Howard County Coroner Frank Flaspohler said this was only the fifth time in his 24 years as coroner that he sought an inquest -- but he thought it was important to publicly acknowledge that bullying was a problem.
Flaspohler said the school district initially wasn’t cooperative after the death. The coroner said a subpoena to the inquest was a way to get them to discuss the issue.
“I felt there was bullying going on and things weren’t getting corrected,” Flaspohler said. “Hopefully this makes the school pay attention to what’s going on. And it’s not just in that school. We all need to wake up and say this exists and we need to take care of it.”
The Howard County prosecutor recused himself from the case because he had connections to the school district.