Mother blames Red Lion school officials, bullies for gay student's death

Six teenagers relentlessly bullied a gay student into suicide as Red Lion Area school administrators stood by and did nothing, the student’s mother alleges in a federal lawsuit against the district.

Zachary Kirchner, a 15-year-old high school freshman, took his life on April 20, 2021.                               

Accoridng to the lawsuit filed by Zachary's mother, Hope Amspacher, the teen faced months of bullying due to his sexual orientation. Although the abuse was reported to school officials, no actions were taken to address the situation.

The suit instead alleges school officials punished the victim of the alleged bullying and told his brother — who sought help from administrators — to "mind his own business."

Red Lion Area school officials declined to comment on the allegations. They referred the matter to Margaret Driscoll, the district's attorney, who did not respond to a request for comment.

Amspacher's lawsuit comes in the wake of a December emergency directive issued from the district's school board requiring students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that correlate with the gender on their birth certificates. The American Civil Liberties Union warned the district that its actions were “putting the school district at serious risk of liability.” The group said the directive discriminates against students and is a violation of both the U.S. Constitution and Title IX.

Red Lion high school's homecoming in Red Lion on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022.

On April 20, Zachary stayed home alone while his mother went to work and his brother went to school, according to details in the complaint.

Concerned, Amspacher said she texted Zachary multiple times, saying he needed to go to school. His last text, at 9:20 a.m., read “leaving now,” the complaint said.

But Zachary didn’t leave for school.

If you've experienced thoughts of suicide, confidential help is available for free through the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by calling 988 in the United States. You can find more information at 988lifeline.org.

Amspacher’s fears apparently weren’t assuaged by the text. She called the school and asked now-former resource officer Marc Greenly, of the then-York Area Regional Police Department, to check on her son’s welfare at their home because she feared that he had harmed himself, the suit alleged.

Amspacher also texted her other son, Zachary’s older brother, at the school.

The teen left his chemistry class and rode with Greenly and Jason Hoffman, a school counselor, in a squad car back to the home, the suit shows.

When they arrived, Amspacher alleged, Greenly and Hoffman didn’t conduct the welfare check as she wanted.

Instead, despite her begging them not to, as the suit states, the two allegedly sent her son up to look for Zachary while they waited downstairs.

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“Officer Greenly and Defendant Hoffman stood in the living room area of the home just chatting and petting the dog while (Zachary's brother) went upstairs to decedent’s bedroom,” the lawsuit states.

Messages left for Greenly and Hoffman were not immediately returned.

Zachary’s brother found blood on floors and in the teen’s bedroom, as well as a kitchen knife.

Amspacher alleged that her son went back downstairs, past Greenly and Hoffman, and checked the basement.

He found his little brother dead there and screamed, the suit said.

Then Greenly took action: helping to recover Zachary’s body, bringing the body upstairs and covering it with a blanket, Amspacher alleged.

The signs were all there, Amspacher’s lawsuit alleged, that Zachary would take his own life.

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He struggled for months and made prior attempts while enduring alleged bullying because of his sexual orientation. The teen received little to no help from school staff and leaders, the suit alleges, as students pestered him in school halls and on social media.

Amspacher filed her complaint Feb. 17 against Red Lion, Hoffman and Greenly, now vice president of the district’s school board. Six youths are also named as defendants and identified by their initials because they are minors.

The suit accuses the district of violating federal laws, including Title IX civil rights in a school, and the Americans with Disabilities and Rehabilitation acts.

Specifically, Amspacher’s suit alleges high school administrators and staff responded to the bullying allegations with “deliberate indifference.” The school also allegedly didn’t provide reasonable accommodations for Zachary as an autistic student.

The youths named as defendants are accused of gross negligence and inflicting emotional distress. The suit alleges they bullied Zachary and continued to bully him after they knew he was at risk of harming himself.

Amspacher seeks damages from the district and the accused students, but the complaint doesn’t specify an amount.

Red Lion Area Senior High School after the lockdown was lifted due to a potential gunman was found in the area in Red Lion on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022.

Zachary began identifying as gay in eighth grade, according to the lawsuit. His obituary in 2021 described him as a gymnast who dreamed of going to UCLA and joining the school’s gymnastics program. He loved skiing and roller coasters and making people laugh, and he supported LGBTQ+ rights.

After Zachary came out, he became a target of bullying. The suit alleges that the students named as defendants hurled anti-gay slurs and other insults at him. He was also on the autism spectrum and had behavioral disorders, and was a special education student as a result, the suits shows.

The alleged bullies are accused of harassing Zachary to kill himself via text messages and social media posts in addition to in-person abuse. Another allegation says they provoked him to react “explosively and emotionally due to his disabilities.”

Zachary apparently took their words to heart and expressed ideas and plans to kill himself, the suit shows.

The alleged bullying intensified as Zachary entered high school, and his mental health worsened, according to the suit. He attempted to take his life once in December 2020, which led to a hospitalization, the complaint shows.

But the bullying allegedly didn’t stop.

Zachary reported the abuse to teachers and school officials, the suit shows, but they allegedly didn’t intervene. His brother also once went to then-principal Mark Shue and an assistant principal with concerns about the name-calling and slurs.

“They told (him) to mind his own business,” the lawsuit alleges.

Shue did not respond to a request for comment.

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Zachary started acting out. The suit specifies that the bullying caused outbursts that “were exacerbated by his diagnosis of autism.”

Administrators, Amspacher alleges, responded by disciplining the teen for conflicts with his bullies and for reacting emotionally instead of intervening to stop the abuse.

A teacher once allegedly held Zachary in a classroom “against his will” for a time; another teacher allegedly staged an intervention as the suit describes how Zachary sat in a circle of classmates while they told him what they didn’t like about him.

A parent of one of the juvenile defendants, who could not be reached for comment Thursday, was also accused in the suit of adding to the alleged abuse at times.

“The school district further emboldened and empowered those students by punishing [Zachary],” the lawsuit states, blaming the alleged inaction for contributing to the boy’s suicide. “In doing so, [the] school district created a toxic, hostile, dangerous and harmful school environment.”

The lawsuit also notes the school district was aware of bullying at the high school through a spreadsheet that tracked such incidents. The school also knew about Zachary’s disabilities, the suit states.

As Zachary’s situation worsened, Amspacher’s suit says, his attendance and grades declined.

By April 2021, the juvenile defendants were allegedly still harassing him and encouraging him to kill himself.

Zachary sent a worrying text to a friend on April 13. Between the evening of the 19th into the 20th, he posted suicidal ideation to social media, including Snapchat, the suit shows.

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The ongoing struggles built up to that morning when Zachary stayed home and caused his mother to worry to the point that the suit says she called the school for help checking on him.

The bullying allegedly didn’t stop with Zachary’s death.

Ampacher’s suit shows that in 2022, on the one-year anniversary of Zachary's death, one of the juvenile defendants posted a photo on social media that allegedly mocked Zachary and his death. Other students allegedly commented with laughing emojis.

One post, the suit shows, stated: “Now we gon change your way of thinking for good.”

Zachary’s brother dropped out of high school during his senior year and has faced an array of mental health issues since 2021, according to the suit.

Zachary isn’t the only student who has raised concerns about anti-LGBTQ bullying in Red Lion Area School District.

In 2013, high school administration ran the wrong name for senior transgender student Issak Wolfe on the prom queen — not king — ballot. Wolfe had been using his male name since the summer before his junior year of high school and planned to change his name legally.

Wolfe also reported facing threats from the school that district officials would use his birth name when he walked for graduation. 

The ACLU wrote a letter to Red Lion officials, demanding the school use Wolfe's chosen name at graduation. The administration ultimately backed down from the threat.

More recently, the ACLU again raised concerns about the district's emergency directive concerning transgender students.

Other parents have raised concerns about bullying at recent school board meetings, including anti-LGBTQ sentiment in the schools.

One transgender student spoke to The York Dispatch about his struggles in the wake of the emergency directive. He spoke anonymously in order to avoid further abuse.

“We didn’t choose to be gay; we didn’t choose to be trans,” he said. “It’s who we are. So why are people coming after us?”

If you've experienced thoughts of suicide, confidential help is available for free through the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by calling 988 in the United States. You can find more information at 988lifeline.org.

— Reach Aimee Ambrose at aambrose@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @aimee_TYD.