IN A TIME when many pre-teen antics are uploaded to TikTok and Instagram, a video out of Vallejo shared on social media last year holds something disturbing.
In it, a sixth-grade girl stands in a school yard with her back to the camera, her long dark hair pulled back into a ponytail and her bright pink backpack on her shoulders. Suddenly, an arm shoots out, reaches for the girl’s hair and yanks her down very hard, sending the child sprawling to the ground.
The 11-year-old girl in the pink backpack was Maria “Therese” Caguin and she took her own life on Jan. 2 because she was repeatedly bullied at her school, her parents said. Now they are suing the school district, alleging that it allowed their daughter to be subjected to physical, cyber and verbal bullying.
Therese’s death shocked and horrified not only her parents, but the greater community. Parents are calling for something to be done about bullying at Hogan Middle School in Vallejo.
Therese’s sister set up a GoFundMe the day after her death to raise funds for her funeral.
“Yesterday my little sister Therese took her own life. My dad found her in her room. She was only 11 years old,” reads the post. “This has been the most unexpected and saddest thing we’ve had to endure as a family.”
The principal of Hogan Middle School, Rosalind Hines, referred all questions about Therese’s alleged bullying and death to the Vallejo City Unified School District, which did not comment on the girl’s death, but Hines did send out a message to parents on Jan. 6 in the wake of Therese’s death.
“With a heavy heart, I share the news of the passing of one of our own,” she wrote. “This sudden loss will surely raise many emotions, concerns, and questions for our entire school, especially our students.”
Hines goes on to say that mental health support staff will be made available.
‘She just kept it to herself’
The reaction on Facebook was a mixture of sadness and anger, with one poster saying, “Maybe they should have stated that this poor child committed suicide due to bullying at that school. Why sugar coat it? Those bullies should suffer consequences.”
Therese’s mother Vionalyn Caguin, a single mom who also has a 3-year-old son, said she has been “completely broken” by her daughter’s death, saying she had no idea how much she had been going through.
“She just kept it to herself,” said Caguin, who said she knew her daughter wasn’t thriving at school but she didn’t know the extent of her trauma.
Caguin said she felt her daughter was trying to protect her from concern because she knew life wasn’t easy for her single mother.
“She didn’t want me to worry, but I was always saying, ‘Mama’s here.’ I made sure I was always there for her,” she said.
Caguin repeatedly asked her daughter how she was doing at her new school. Therese began at Hogan in August and was having difficulty making friends. She was obedient, quiet and sweet, her mother said.
Still, after a few months at Hogan, her mom knew something was wrong and began trying to find a different school for her daughter, she said, though other schools had waiting lists.
Caguin said that she didn’t fully understand the scope of the bullying until after her daughter’s death and she saw the video of her being assaulted in the school yard.
“When I saw that video, I said, oh my God, it’s breaking my heart, because I didn’t know that it’s that bad,” she said through tears during a visit to her daughter’s grave in a Vallejo cemetery.
Caguin said the school had told her last fall that there was an “incident” involving her daughter and that the kids would “face consequences,” but that the school never told her the extent of what happened, and neither did her daughter.
“(F)or the staff and faculty to ignore … that the child was thinking about hurting herself as a result of bullying, it’s not just negligent, it’s grossly negligent.”Bryan Harrison, Caugin family attorney
According to the claim filed Thursday, the school allegedly assured Therese’s parents that they would “take reasonable and appropriate measures to stop the bullying endured by” their daughter.
“Hogan Middle School did nothing to intervene and stop the harassment and bullying and did not follow the policies and procedures to make sure that Decedent and other students on campus were not continually harassed and bullied,” reads the claim.
Though Therese didn’t confide in her mother, she did reach out to a teacher. On or about October or November, she emailed a teacher to say that she “wanted to die,” the parent’s claim alleges. The suit alleges that the school then “did nothing to intervene.”
“In cases such as this, it requires the maximum amount of attention to bring about change,” said attorney for the family Bryan Harrison. “You have a situation in which the parents have entrusted the faculty and administration with trust to care for and protect what is most meaningful to us as parents — our children. And for the staff and faculty to ignore repeated instances of bullying, and in this particular case, ignore actual notice from a child directly that the child was thinking about hurting herself as a result of bullying, it’s not just negligent, it’s grossly negligent.”
A spokesperson for the school district provided their approach to the problem of bullying.
“We have multiple ways to respond to bullying at Hogan Middle School and across the district,” said district spokesperson Celina Baguiao.
Baguiao said all campuses have mental health support providers, academic support providers, and a way to report bullying either directly or anonymously. She also said Vallejo schools contract with outside agencies about bullying, including governmental agencies and nonprofits. There is a care team at Hogan that meets weekly to discuss concerns and an “end of day huddle” with staff to check in with each other about occurrences throughout the day.
‘Feeling worthless and stupid and suicidal’
A mother of another child at Hogan said that abuse her daughter faced at the hands of kids there and even a teacher ramped up after Therese’s suicide.
“My daughter’s depressed,” Lauren Keltz, mother of a 13-year-old girl currently at Hogan, said she told a school administrator. “She told me that she is feeling worthless and stupid and suicidal. And I said to the school, ‘I’m telling you right now … because of your guys’ lack of intervention, I’m going to hold you personally accountable.’”
Keltz said no one ever pulled her daughter aside to ask how she was doing.
She said initially the bullying at the school allegedly came from a teacher, who called her daughter “stupid” and “retarded.”
The teacher did not respond to a request for comment and the school district also declined to comment.
Keltz said the news of Therese’s death after her own daughter’s experience at the school horrified her and made her more determined to press for change at Hogan.
Lawsuits against school districts for bullying are actually not that uncommon. Last August, the El Segundo Unified School District in Los Angeles County was ordered to pay $1 million in a suit filed on behalf of a 13-year-old girl who was bullied, with students going as far as creating a petition to end her life.
This February in Ocean County, New Jersey, a 14-year-old girl who was bullied took her own life and her alleged attackers have been charged with conspiracy to commit aggravated assault. The superintendent of schools in the community has also resigned as a result. The district is currently being sued for another case of alleged bullying as well.
For Therese’s family, suing the district is a way to try to foster change.
“I don’t want my daughter’s life to be erased,” said Caguin. “I want something different from the school. Don’t ignore those things that are happening. Even if my daughter’s not coming back, they have to change.”