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An L.A. teen died. Her mom blames bullying, high school's inaction

On Dec. 13, after a long day of cleaning motel rooms as a housekeeper, Maria Juarez found her 16-year-old daughter at their South Los Angeles home trembling and sweating.

Juarez asked her elder child, Shaylee Mejia, what happened, but Shaylee hesitated. She didn’t want her mother to make it a bigger deal, Juarez recalled her saying. She reached for her daughter’s arm, who cried out in pain. Finally Shaylee explained that she had been bullied for being new at Manual Arts High School and had gotten into a fight at school. Bruises covered her arms and chest.

The next day, Juarez said, she went to the school and tried to tell administrators about what happened. But she said they dismissed her concerns and failed to take action.

Months later, Shaylee was targeted again at Manual Arts, her mother said, a fight that she believes led to her daughter's untimely death.

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“As a mother, I had full confidence in leaving her at the school and knowing everything would be OK,” Juarez, 34, said in an interview in Spanish. “I’m in shock. I have another child who is 3 years old now. How will I send him to school? I will just be thinking that I am sending my child to his death again.”

Juarez, who is from Guatemala, said she places blame on the school district for its negligence and inadequate effort to protect Shaylee. She said she became a single mother in order to protect her children from abuse by her former partner.

“I didn’t know the enemy would be the school itself,” she said.

On March 9, Shaylee fainted while at a birthday party and was taken to the hospital, her mother said. By the time she arrived, her daughter was unconscious, Juarez said; a doctor told her that Shaylee had arrived in serious condition and had suffered a brain hemorrhage.

Juarez later learned that days earlier, on March 5, her daughter had again been attacked in a school bathroom, and this time, video from the fight showed the student hitting her head against a bathroom stall.

Shaylee never regained consciousness at the hospital, her mother said, and six days later she was declared dead.

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The Los Angeles County medical examiner this weekend ruled Shaylee's death accidental, finding the cause of death was "sequelae of blunt head trauma," or the result of a prior head injury. The agency did not immediately respond to further questions about the autopsy.

It wasn't clear from the initial findings whether the fatal head injury was from the school fight or something else. The Los Angeles Police Department said the case remains under investigation.

An LAPD spokesperson said the agency responded twice to calls related to Shaylee's death, first on March 9 for a victim who fell, and then the next day for a "lost juvenile found at a local hospital." The spokesperson did not respond to follow-up questions from The Times about the circumstances around those calls.

According to a report from KTLA-TV Channel 5, detectives are looking into reports that Shaylee fell down stairs the night she went to the hospital. But Juarez and her attorney, Luis Carrillo, dispute the reports, noting that the birthday party was held at a one-story building.

Carrillo, a civil rights lawyer, admits there are still some unknowns in the case — but he said it is clear that Shaylee was badly beaten, twice, before she died.

“You can see how her head hits that particular wall," Carrillo said, referencing cellphone video of one of the fights. “It was grotesque the way her head hit the wall."

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The Times reviewed video from the two fights, which appeared to be filmed on cellphones in a high school bathroom. One of the videos appeared to show Shaylee hitting her head on a bathroom stall. It wasn't exactly clear when the fights occurred or what prompted them. The videos do not show staff intervening; instead, it appears that several students eventually break up the fights.

Carrillo said Shaylee's death could have been prevented if school officials stepped in when they learned about dangerous fighting.

“They don’t protect the kids," he said. “I believe that the failure to protect [Juarez's] child is the main reason why she’s dead right now. ... If they had taken action in December, the child would still be alive.”

Carrillo hasn't yet filed a lawsuit in the case, but said they are working toward that.

When Juarez approached school administrators about the December fight, she said an assistant principal dismissed her concerns, even when she and her daughter tried to share video of the encounter. Juarez said she refused to leave the school until a report was filed, but she isn't sure what came of that. No one ever followed up with her, she said.

A spokesperson for the Los Angeles Unified School District said the LAPD is investigating the matter, but declined to answer further questions about the case or previous incidents at the school. Instead, it shared two messages sent to Manual Arts High School families on March 20 and 21.

In the first statement, Principal Alejandro Macias said he was "saddened to report the recent death of one of our students off campus." He offered condolences "to those who are impacted by this loss, including the student’s family, friends, and teachers," and mentioned the availability of support services for those struggling with the loss.

The following day, the principal sent another note to families about an incident in which "school staff intervened to break up a physical altercation between students," noting that an investigation was ongoing and that additional Los Angeles School Police officers would be providing extra patrols on campus "in an abundance of caution." It wasn't immediately clear if this incident was related to Shaylee's death.

Juarez said her daughter had been thoughtful and caring, often helping care for her younger brother, and had wanted to be a nurse one day.

Shaylee spent most of her education at the UCLA Community School, where she never had any issues, her mother said. But Juarez moved Shaylee to Manual Arts for the 2023-24 school year to keep her closer to home, a move she thought would be safer.

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Instead, Juarez said, her daughter faced bullies and threats at her new school’s campus. Juarez said she's speaking out now for the sake of other parents' children.

“This situation has been immensely painful, but I can’t stay quiet. I can’t stay quiet because other girls could experience the same thing,” she said. “This has to stop.”

Back at the UCLA Community School, classmates set up an altar for Shaylee. They decorated it with candles, red roses and printed out photos of their former classmate. Class photos shared from over the years showed Shaylee in second grade, wearing pigtails, and years later, with highlights in her hair.

“I miss you baby girl. You were so loved and never will be forgotten,” someone wrote on one balloon. “Long live Shaylee.”

A friend started a GoFundMe fundraiser to help Juarez raise money for funeral expenses.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.