An Italian family is suing the elite New York boarding school where their 17-year-old son died by suicide in February, accusing the school of keeping him in “solitary confinement” while waiting for them to arrive after he was expelled for cheating on a math assignment.
Officials at EF Academy, a private high school in Thornwood, about 35 miles north of New York City, contributed to the death of 17-year-old Claudio Mandia by expelling him and putting him in solitary confinement despite being aware of personal issues that had affected his academic performance, including a bout with Covid and the death of a close family member, according to the suit filed last Friday in Westchester County Supreme Court by his father, Mauro Mandia, and another representative of the boy's estate.
The filing also alleges that the school “often recklessly disregards the psychological needs of its students," noting that a classmate of Claudio had tried kill himself and that Claudio had witnessed it over a year before his own death.
The suit alleges wrongful death, negligence, false imprisonment and emotional distress, among other charges, against the school, its parent company, four school officials identified by name and 20 others who remain unnamed and who the complaint alleges "contributed to the harm set forth." It demands both punishment for the school and compensation for the Mandia family in light of Claudio's death.
A spokesperson for EF Academy said in a statement that the school community remains "deeply saddened by the tragic passing of Claudio Mandia, and our hearts go out to his family, friends, and our entire school community during this unimaginably difficult time."
The statement went on to characterize the filing as containing "multiple inaccurate statements," and disputed the claim that Mandia was "placed in solitary confinement."
"The narrative that is shared in the legal filing is not accurate or based on fact," the statement said. "We are confident that the legal process will allow us to provide and prove a fact-based legal case recounting what actually transpired."
'He was under extreme stress'
Claudio's parents, Mandia and Elisabetta Benesatto, elected to send their son to the elite boarding school — where tuition runs more than $66,000 a year for full-time boarders — more than 4,000 miles from their home in Battipaglia, Italy, because it promised a rigorous academic program that would allow Claudio to fulfill his dream of attending a top university in Italy, according to the complaint.
The school also has two other campuses, in Oxford, England and Pasadena, California.
In the spring of 2020, after he had completed his first two years of high school in Italy, Claudio's parents enrolled him in the EF Academy's two-year International Baccalaureate Program in New York, which provides a "globally recognized elite diploma," the complaint states.
Claudio did well in his first year at the school, according to the complaint, which features comments from his former teachers who called him “a very good math student,” “a great joy to have in class” and “respectful and honest.”
But the his second and final year at the school was beset with challenges, the complaint outlines.
“As EF Academy knew, [Claudio's] term was off to a difficult start and that he was under extreme stress,” the complaint states.
When he was home in Italy for winter break in December 2021, Claudio, his mother and three sisters all caught Covid, which delayed the return of Claudio and one of his sisters, who also attended EF Academy, causing him to fall behind in class, the complaint alleges.
When Claudio and his sister finally returned to the campus on Jan. 25, he “was inundated with assignments that had accumulated while he was quarantined and had impending deadlines,” causing him to sleep very little and show up late to class, resulting in a Saturday detention he had to serve a little more than a week before his death.
Just under two weeks later, Claudio “suffered the unexpected loss of a close family member,” who allegedly died of a heart condition, according to the complaint. The loss "upset him terribly” and led him to seek counseling from the school’s Director of Mental Health Services, Chelsea Lovece, who is named as a defendant in the complaint.
The lawsuit alleges a charge of social worker malpractice against Lovece, claiming she was not properly supervised by a licensed psychologist and repeatedly "deviated and/or departed from the accepted standard of social worker care."
Lovece did not respond to request for comment Thursday. A spokesperson for the school did not respond to a question about whether she remains employed there, citing the ongoing litigation.
Claudio had begun seeing Lovece for mental health counseling more than a year earlier, after witnessing the suicide attempt of another student who was also expelled and placed in solitary confinement — and now credits Claudio with saving his life, according to the complaint. But Claudio's parents were never informed he was receiving mental health treatment during that 14-month period, the complaint claims, adding that the school has continued to refuse to release any details of his counseling sessions to his parents or their lawyer.
"The safety of our school community is always our top priority, and we take the physical and mental well-being of our students extremely seriously," a representative for the school said in its statement.
He 'screamed and cried for help'
Soon after learning of his relative's death, Claudio "was accused of and admitted to hiring a classmate to draft a math paper for him," the complaint states, adding that he was under "extreme stress" at the time.
The complaint alleges that, as punishment for cheating, school officials expelled him and “forced him into solitary confinement” on Feb. 14 until his parents could pick him up from Italy.
Officials told Claudio not to leave the isolation room and decided that all his meals would be delivered to him, the complaint alleges.
The complaint claims the school also "forbade C.M. from nearly all direct contact with other human beings, allowed rotting trash to accumulate in the room, and on the day before his anticipated departure (and ultimately his death), he was not fed breakfast or lunch, meaning he went nearly 24 hours without a meal,” other than a serving of chicken nuggets from McDonald's.
Claudio “screamed and cried for help while held in solitary confinement” while school officials allegedly ignored his pleas and refused his parents’ request that they allow him to leave the room they were keeping him in, according to the complaint.
The day before he was expected to depart, Claudio interacted with at least three school staff members while displaying signs of attempted suicide on his neck, according to the complaint, which notes that up to 15 of his classmates may have also seen the marks when they visited him to say goodbye, and that many "asked him questions about it."
"[Claudio] said he 'fell in the shower,'" the complaint states.
“Still, EF Academy kept [Claudio] in solitary confinement without the necessary intervention, counseling, guidance, medical care, mental health care, and supervision,” according to the complaint.
The next morning, Claudio’s sister asked Lovece to check on her brother after she hadn’t yet heard from him that day, the complaint said.
Lovece told the girl that she knocked at the door but nobody answered, leading her to believe he was sleeping — and when she stopped by the room again later, she found him dead by apparent suicide, the complaint alleges.
"EF Academy and its agents knew that [Claudio] was at risk for suicide yet recklessly kept him in isolation, which directly caused his death," the complaint states.
The complaint also names EF Academy's Head of School, Dr. Vladimir Kuskovski; the Dean of Students, Wayne Walton; and Pathway Manager Jenna Korn as defendants, who the lawsuit alleges wrongly upheld the school's solitary confinement protocol for students following expulsion. The suit also accuses of EF Academy of negligence in retaining, supervising and training those staffers and others.
Kuskovski, Walton and Korn did not respond to requests for comment. EF Academy's spokesperson did not immediately respond to an inquiry about whether they remain employed at the school, citing the ongoing litigation.
A monthly update posted to the school's website, dated from September, is signed from Kuskovski, who it lists as head of school. The website also continues to list Korn in her role as a pathway manager.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.