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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Gov. Spencer Cox described the recent death by suicide of 10-year-old Isabella "Izzy" Tichenor who experienced bullying at school over her race and autism spectrum disorder "an awful, terrible tragedy."
He also expressed confidence in the Davis School District's response to a two-year Department of Justice investigation that found "serious and widespread racial harassment" in the district's schools by some students and staff.
"Every single one of us has to do better, and Davis is going to lead out and help us in that effort," said Cox during the PBS Utah Governor's Monthly News Conference on Thursday.
Cox said the DOJ's findings make it easy to point the finger at Davis School District and assume "that's the only place we have problems, and it's not. These issues are not just Utah issues. They are issues in our country."
It is incumbent on parents to talk to their children about what they are experiencing and doing at school, he said.
"You may not know that your child is being a bully, and you may not know if your child is being bullied. Sometimes the bullies have been bullied by someone else, and they're just reciprocating that behavior on others. I've been very open about my own situation when I was young about being bullied and suicidal ideation that I experienced as a young man. This is happening," he said.
Cox has spoken openly about his brushes with suicidal thoughts as a teenager. In 2018, he published an online essay titled "Let's Talk About Suicide" after he decided to talk about his own struggles in a community suicide prevention meeting.
"We have to be able to talk about race and we have to be able to talk about bullying and we have to be able to talk about disability and treating each other with love and respect," Cox said.
The governor said he and his wife Abby Cox recently spent time with Izzy's mother, grandmother and other family members.
"We spent some very tender moments together. Abby and I, our heart is broken for that family. We love them and we expressed the love of the people of Utah, and they are feeling that love from every corner of our state. It was a powerful moment," he said.
Cox shared that he also had a "powerful meeting" with Reid Newey, superintendent of the Davis School District. Foxboro Elementary School in North Salt Lake, where Izzy Tichenor was a student, is a Davis District school.
The meeting also addressed the DOJ's findings which revealed the school district's "ineffective response" to incidents of racial harassment "for years." The parties discussed what the school district has been doing with respect to the investigation in recent months and its plans going forward.
"I left that meeting with full confidence in the superintendent and in the direction that they are moving to address this," Cox said.
The governor said the school district is limited in what it can share publicly regarding its response due to privacy laws but more details will be forthcoming.
Cox described Newey as one of the best school superintendents in Utah. Some critics have said Newey should step down.
"He's an incredible human being, one of the most empathetic and passionate people I've ever met. He cares about every student. He has been one of the best to stand up when there is bullying and when there have been racist incidents. I have full confidence in him moving forward," Cox said.
The Department of Justice probe revealed that Black students attending Davis schools had been routinely called the N-word or other racial epithets by non-Black students, and they were told that their skin was dirty or looked like feces, according to a DOJ news release.
Many Black students told investigators that harassment was so pervasive and frequently occurred in the presence of adults "that they concluded school employees condoned the behavior and believed reporting it further would be futile," the DOJ said.
Cox said the next time he meets with the Utah School Superintendents Association he will discuss with them what is being done elsewhere in the state with respect to bullying and students who are experiencing discrimination.
Parents need to do their part as well, he said
"We need parents to model good behavior. You don't model good behavior showing up at school district meetings and threatening people. That's not OK. Kids will see that type of harassment and bullying, and they will mimic that," Cox said. "But more importantly, kids are going to do dumb things. Right? Every one of us has done it. The key is how we respond. Let them know that's not OK and to help them find a better path."
Cox urged anyone who is feeling hopeless or in crisis to seek help.
The national suicide prevention lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 provides assistance 24 hours a day. Suicide and crisis prevention hotlines in Utah can be found here.
Utah students can talk to or text a counselor through the SafeUT app. The app can also be used to report threats at school.
Suicide prevention resources
If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, call the suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-273-TALK.
- Utah County Crisis Line: 801-691-5433
- Salt Lake County/UNI Crisis Line: 801-587-3000
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
- Trevor Project Hotline for LGBTQ teens: 1-866-488-7386