Family Upset With Suicide Ruling in 10-Year-Old's Death

Aquan Lewis found hanged by shirt in school bathroom-- family disputes suicide.

February 5, 2009, 12:13 PM

Feb. 5, 2009— -- The family of a 10-year-old boy who died after being hanged on a bathroom hook at his school Tuesday is unsatisfied with the medical examiner's suicide ruling and believes the boy may have been the victim of bullies.

Aquan Lewis, an Illinois fifth-grader who loved football and basketball, was found dead on the bathroom floor by a school janitor at Oakton Elementary School in Evanston, Ill. The janitor, Elliott Lieteau, told The Associated Press that others had pulled the boy off the hook and attempted to perform CPR.

Lallie Marshall, Aquan's great-grandmother, told that the family believes he was hoisted onto the hook by a group of boys. In the days after Aquan's death, she said, they have heard he might have been the target of school bullies.

"The way the stall is made and everything, he couldn't hang himself," she said.

Aquan's mother, Angel Marshall has hired an attorney to investigate the circumstances of her son's death. The family wants to know why school officials didn't keep track of him and why officials believe a seemingly happy child would take his own life at such a young age.

"The medical examiner, before the police have ever done the investigation, has concluded suicide … I think it's reckless, frankly," said Chicago attorney Todd Smith.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported that Aquan had told a teacher he planned to kill himself, and the teacher may also have shared the boy's comments with another staff member. One of the sources, according to the newspaper, charged that school personnel failed to take the threat seriously. According to a law enforcement report, Aquan had been scolded by school staff earlier Tuesday.

Neglect allegations have been lodged against the school with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services in connection with the death, DCFS spokesman Jimmie Whitelow confirmed.

A doctor with the Cook County Medical Examiner's Office, who requested her name not be used, said Aquan was hanged on a bathroom stall door by the collar of his polo shirt. A foot print was found on the toilet in the stall, she said, indicating he had used the seat to get to the door hook.

The doctor said attempts were made to resuscitate him, "but I think it was too late."

Police said Aquan had vital signs while en route to the hospital, but was pronounced dead early Wednesday morning. The doctor at the Medical Examiner's Office said she did not know how long the child had been hanging from the hook.

But Smith said that Aquan, the middle of three children, was a "happy kid" who told his mom before school Tuesday that he was looking forward to basketball practice in the afternoon. Lallie Marshall said Aquan helped get his 5-year-old sister on the bus and then hopped on his own bus to school.

While Angel Marshall has not made formal plans to sue the school, "I think all things are on the table," Smith said. "The mother is really trying to find out what happened to her son."

Child Suicide 'Very Rare'

While the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists suicide as the third leading cause of death for people between the ages of 15 to 24, it lists just 11 deaths for children under age 10 in 2005, the most current data available.

Lanny Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology, told that the suicide of a 10-year-old is "very rare" and usually doesn't happen without clear warning signs, such as "very serious symptoms of aggression ... or just being out of control in some other ways."

"Suicide at this age is very impulsive," he said.

And if Aquan had indeed threatened suicide to a school employee, it should have been taken seriously no matter how flippant it may have sounded, Berman said.

"We always advise to take every threat seriously," he said. "If you're wrong, big deal. If you're right you may save a life."

Evanston Police Commander Tom Guenther told today that his office was aware of the medical examiner's ruling, but would not draw its own conclusion until the investigation is complete.

Police are continuing to talk to a wide swath of people, including students, parents and school employees.

He declined to say whether foul play was being considered and said it would be "inappropriate" to comment on whether police have had previous dealings with the family.

A public records search showed Angel Marshall pleaded no contest to cocaine possession in 2003 and was sentenced to community service in 1999 on a handgun charge.

Lallie Marshall said her great-grandson loved his video games and his time playing sports. He'd been playing on football and basketball teams for about two years.

Marshall said Aquan's older brother Adam told her that Aquan wanted to be an NBA star when he was older.

"He was a nice little boy," she said.

The Evanston/Skokie School District 65 posted a message to parents and the community on its Web site Wednesday mourning the loss of "an Oakton School fifth grader" and saying that counselors, staff and psychologists would be made available to students.

"It is important for us to let you know that at this point in the investigation, it appears this is an isolated incident involving one student," the message read. "No other students were in harm's way."

"If there is someone to blame, I have to take the blame for that because I'm the superintendent of schools," Superintendent Hardy Murphy told an ABC affiliate.

Few who knew Aquan wanted to talk about him or his death today. Though one member of the Oakton Elementary School PTA expressed sadness over the incident, no one would comment further.

Aquan's football coach Tracey Wallace was quoted by the Chicago Tribune as saying he had potential "not only as a citizen, but as an athlete."

But when contacted by today, Craig Thompson, executive director of Evanston Jr. Wildkit Football, said he had been advised by the club's attorney not to comment in light of possible forthcoming litigation against the school district.

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