The family of an Italian teenager who died by suicide at an international boarding school in Thornwood after being disciplined for cheating has filed a lawsuit against the school and several of its administrators.
Claudio Mandia hung himself on Feb. 17, just days before his 18th birthday, in a room at EF Academy where he had been kept for four days of what the lawsuit terms “solitary confinement” following his expulsion for academic dishonesty.
He had gotten another student to complete a math paper for him at a time when, his family said, he was under extreme stress. There had been a death in the family and schoolwork was piling up after he returned late from winter break because he and family members had contracted COVID.
“It was painfully foreseeable that forcing (him) into solitary confinement, malnourishing him, and inadequately supervising him after delivering the life-altering news that he would be expelled ‒ all while he was enduring other hardships that EF Academy knew about and was treating him for ‒ could result in his tragic death,” alleges the lawsuit, filed Friday in state Supreme Court in Westchester County.
The lawsuit alleges that school officials were aware of his mental instability in the final weeks and never should have placed him in solitary confinement, a treatment that is prohibited for minors in U.S. prisons and has been linked to an increased risk of adolescent suicide.
Mandia ‒ and his parents Mauro and Elisabetta from their home in Battipaglia, Italy – repeatedly asked for the punishment to be lifted. His parents blame that isolation for his decision to end his life.
“He was a very open guy, with his attitude with his very positive character,” his father said at a news conference in White Plains on Tuesday. “He was far away, millions of miles, from a concept like suicide.”
Their Philadelphia-based lawyer George Bochetto said that the school should have been on notice from a suicide attempt 15 months earlier by another expelled student who was kept in isolation.
“They persisted in this barbarous protocol,” Bochetto said of school officials.
The school said in a statement Monday that it remained “deeply saddened” by Mandia’s death and that “the safety of our school community is always our top priority, and we take the physical and mental wellbeing of our students extremely seriously.”
But it emphasized that the lawsuit contained “multiple inaccurate statements.”
“In particular, the student was awaiting his departure from the school in an unlocked student dorm room, and at no time was he placed in solitary confinement without social interactions or access to other resources and facilities,” the statement read. “The narrative that is shared in the legal filing is not accurate or based on fact. We are confident that the legal process will allow us to provide and prove a fact-based legal case recounting what actually transpired.”
Bochetto said that the family is intent on changes to state education law that would require all private schools to adhere to the same guidelines as public schools related to prohibitions against the isolation of students.
Mandia was forbidden from leaving the room on his own and was served his meals there, although the lawsuit identified a 24-hour period when he claimed to have gotten no food.
“Presumably to punish (him) for cheating, as if expulsion and public humiliation weren’t enough, EF Academy made conditions even more unbearable for him by isolating him in a room away from all other students and faculty,” the lawsuit contends.
But it did cite several instances when Mandia was allowed to leave the room and see either students or staff members, and that a teacher did bring him to the gym one evening.
On Feb. 16, the night before his parents were scheduled to pick him up, several of his friends were able to visit him in the room. They were accompanied by two administrators. The students noticed on his neck what the lawsuit calls ligature marks indicative of a suicide attempt. They asked him about the marks and he claimed he fell in the shower.
Whether the administrators saw the marks is unclear. The lawsuit alleges that they should have and even if they didn’t they should have recognized Mandia was in a vulnerable state instead of leaving him in isolation again when the classmates left.
The next day, one of his three sisters, who was also an EF student, went to the director of mental services, Chelsea Lovece, who had been a social worker counseling Claudio since late 2020. The sister was concerned because she had not heard from him that morning. She said Lovece told her she’d knocked on the door that morning but got no answer and figured Claudio was sleeping. When Lovece went again later in the morning she found Claudio hanging from a torn bed sheet tied to the railing of the top bunk bed, according to the lawsuit.
The area of the school where Mandia hung himself did not have suicide prevention measures that were present in other locations, the lawsuit alleges, including where another Italian student was kept the previous year after attempting suicide. According to the lawsuit, Mandia had noticed slash marks on that boy’s wrists and had gotten him help, and the former student credits him with saving his life.
Alleging wrongful death, negligence, false imprisonment, infliction of emotional distress and other claims, the lawsuit seeks unspecified damages against EF International Academy; its parent company EF Education First; and several employees, including the head of the school, Vladimir Kuskovski; Lovece; Wayne Walton, the dean of students; and Jenna Korn, a counselor at the school at the time whose title was pathway manager.
According to the lawsuit, Mauro Mandia arranged a Zoom meeting with Korn on Feb. 15 to discuss his son’s isolation but she had to reschedule after missing it. He wrote an angry email:
“I don’t like your organization, the moralism of your school is childlike. Treating my son like a criminal left solitary in a room because give shame to the honor of your school is ridiculous,” he wrote, concluding later with “we don’t have much to discuss I guess. Enjoy and have fun with your ridiculous rules.”
Korn responded but did not address the father’s specific reference to solitary.
“The school protocol is to move students out of their dorm room if they are departing campus as it makes the transition smoother for all,” she wrote.
The lawsuit accuses the school of never informing Mandia’s parents that he was receiving mental health treatment and that Lovece was not properly authorized to provide clinical social work. Asked about the lawsuit’s specific allegations of malpractice involving Lovece, a spokesman said “we have been and continue to be in compliance with all regulatory requirements.”
Mandia, referred to in the lawsuit as the heir to his family’s frozen pizza export company, spent his junior year of high school at EF Academy and returned in the fall of 2021 for his senior year. When he and his mother and a sibling contracted COVID-19 back home during winter break, he remained in Italy and was taking care of his mother as her condition worsened. His father, who tested negative, had gone to stay at a hotel.
By the time he got back to EF, he had fallen behind in his work and was seeking help from Lovece.
Mandia was confronted about the cheating on Feb. 8, two days after learning his relative had died. He admitted what he did, attributing it to being distraught and struggling to catch up with school work. He had a disciplinary hearing on Feb. 10 and his parents wrote a detailed apology to school officials, who said they would take the weekend to make a decision.
The lawsuit emphasizes that it was the expulsion on Feb. 14 and the subsequent isolation that drove Mandia to take his own life. The whole weekend he was making plans for the following week, including a trip to Manhattan with a friend and what he would do with his parents and siblings who were visiting him for his birthday. He even sent his mother a list of things he wanted her to bring for him.