Nate Bronstein’s parents constantly replay the weeks leading up to their son’s suicide and how things could have gone differently.
Nate was funny and easy going, someone who could make friends anywhere, they said. But he became withdrawn and angry when he transferred to the Latin School of Chicago as a sophomore last fall. His parents said students bullied him nonstop, with one telling him to kill himself, and he was picked on by a teacher.
His mother repeatedly reached out to the school for help, and said Nate himself met with a dean on Dec. 13 to share details of a cyberbullying incident.
“He had received an obscene Snapchat message and he was attacked, hazed, targeted and threatened with physical violence over a text thread,” said Rose Bronstein, Nate’s mother.
The school did not investigate the allegations or inform Nate’s parents, the Bronsteins said, despite being required by law and school policy to do so. In January, Nate took his own life. He was 15 years old.
“We’ve come to learn that the Illinois [anti-bullying] laws are maybe some of the strongest, if not the strongest, in the United States,” said Rob Bronstein, Nate’s father. “But if schools don’t follow them, it doesn’t do anything. And that’s what’s so upsetting.”
The family this week sued Latin, some staff and the parents of several students who allegedly bullied Nate. They said their goal is to break a culture at Latin and other schools that allows bullying to go unchecked. Robust anti-bullying laws are in place across the country — Illinois significantly beefed up its law in 2014 — but experts and families like the Bronsteins say they are diluted in the face of institutional pressure and other forces.
In a statement, Latin calls the allegations of wrongdoing “inaccurate and misplaced.” It said staff put students’ interests first “as they did in this instance.” It said the school community is grieving and wishes the family healing.
In an email to the school community Thursday prompted by the lawsuit, the assistant head of school also said “bullying is absolutely not tolerated at Latin,” adding that the school has policies in place to prevent it at school and online. “When incidents of alleged bullying occur, we immediately address them with interventions and, as appropriate, we implement disciplinary procedures,” she wrote.
But the Bronsteins charge that an insular and exclusive culture at Latin allows bullying behavior to continue and breeds a lack of accountability. Latin is a top-ranked private school, charging more than $40,000 a year in tuition to parents that include the city’s wealthiest. Many children start in preschool and go all the way through high school, including children of alumni. The Latin administrator nodded to that issue in Thursday’s email, saying “Latin welcomes students and families whether they have been with us for years or joined us this semester.”
Social media accounts like the “Survivors of Latin” Facebook page share experiences of bullying and abuse by students, faculty and parents going back years. The Bronsteins said Latin has kept other incidents quiet throughout the years to uphold a prestigious reputation and to deflect negative attention from board members, at least three of whom are parents of students implicated in the lawsuit. Requests for comment from those board members from WBEZ went unanswered. In the suit, the Bronsteins specifically cite the alleged abusers’ connection to the Latin board as one reason why Nate’s bullying complaints weren’t addressed.
“The only day worse than January 13, when he took his life, was just that kick in the gut of just knowing how we’ve been betrayed by the school, how they had this information,” said Rob Bronstein, referring to the December meeting Nate had with a dean where he named his alleged abusers, but his parents were never informed. “They had thought only about themselves and protecting themselves and their reputations, and these connected kids who took part in this.”
Illinois requires all schools, public and private, to create a bullying prevention policy. The policy should be reevaluated every two years for any updates. Reports of bullying are supposed to be investigated within 10 school days and all guardians of students involved must be notified. Latin’s policy includes notifying parents and says students are subject to discipline.
Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center and criminology professor at Florida Atlantic University, said keeping quiet about a problem or a poor response can cause further damage.
“That, unfortunately, causes these youth to struggle to suffer silently, to tell all their peers ‘Look, you can’t trust anyone,’ ” he said. “That, of course, leads to the emotional harm and, and the damage that we’re seeing amongst the population, which could drive them to hurting themselves or others.”
He said it isn’t uncommon for all kinds of schools to worry about reputation or liability in bullying cases.
“If they’re not doing what they need to do both proactively and reactively, then it’s going to lead to just this undermining of who they are as an educational institution,” he said.
Nate Bronstein transferred from Francis Parker, another private school, because he wanted to return to in-person learning. But early on, his parents said he was harassed by Latin students. He was ostracized when a rumor started that he was unvaccinated, which was not true. The bullying escalated and Nate was harassed on group chats.
Rose Bronstein said her son’s behavior changed dramatically and she was alarmed. Bronstein contacted the school multiple times in October and November. School counselors made repeated attempts to meet with Nate, according to the lawsuit, but Bronstein felt many of her concerns were disregarded when a counselor labeled them as related to a family issue. Bronstein sought independent counseling for Nate and they also planned to transfer him back to Parker in late January. The lines of communication were open, and the Bronsteins think Latin could have shared crucial information, but they failed to do so.
After Nate died, the Bronsteins said school officials shared why they hadn’t informed the parents about Nate’s Dec. 13 cyberbullying allegations. They said Nate had said at the time that he wanted to be able to “advocate for himself,” and because Nate was soon leaving the school, according to the lawsuit.
Soon after that Dec. 13 meeting, over winter break, the cyberbullying continued, unbeknownst to Nate’s parents. Nate was scheduled to transfer back to Parker on Jan. 24, but on Jan. 13 he took his own life. The Bronsteins think if they’d known about Nate’s Dec. 13 meeting with the dean, their son would still be alive today.
“I have had so many people reach out to me to tell me that they have experienced bullying at Latin, and their voices were never heard,” said Rose Bronstein. “What is so ironic to me and so perplexing is the bullies get to stay and the victims leave.”
Colleen Cicchetti, executive director of Center for Childhood Resilience at Lurie Children’s Hospital, said that even though anti-bullying laws have been around for years, and schools in the state have strong policies, it’s about following through. Students are also in a heightened state right now. There’s an increase of anxiety and depression in kids.
“We’ve got a confluence of social isolation, fewer social skills, kids reentering back into school settings when they’ve been in the safety of their home,” she said. “I really believe that the current mental health challenges are multifaceted, multifactorial. Social anxiety is super high.”
She said when social anxiety increases, kids may feel the need to be part of the “in crowd” and they’ll stay quiet about bad behavior as long as they aren’t the target. She said schools should revisit policies with that in mind. With social media and technology, she said bullying can be constant and relentless.
The Bronsteins expect a lengthy and painful legal process ahead. They said any damages awarded will go to anti-bullying organizations.
“We’re committed to really investing as long as it takes to get to the bottom of what happened, to hold people accountable, to see to it that that doesn’t happen again,” Rob Bronstein said.