'They are not protecting our kids'; Family devastated by 11-year-old girl's death

UPDATE: The Pierce County Medical Examiner determined in Jan. 2023 that an 11-year-old who died the year prior passed away as a result from fentanyl in her system, not due to an altercation at school.

Previous story:

The grandfather of Lenyia, an 11-year-old Ford Middle School student, says the family is devastated following her death at the hospital this weekend.

A spokesperson for the Franklin Pierce School District says that there was an altercation at Ford Middle School prior to her hospitalization that involved the student.

The Pierce County Sheriff's Department said they don't believe her death was related to the fight.

PJ Faafiti is Lenyia's grandfather, but he says he helped to raise the youngster. He says she was a beautiful and spirited kid and what happened to her was heartbreaking. 

Protestors like parent Coleen Black stood outside the school district Monday, demanding changes.

"It’s horrible. No parent should ever have to go through what this family went through," said Black. 

"My children grew up in this district, and it used to be safe," said Jennifer Pitigliano, another concerned parent and grandparent. She says reports of bullying in the school district need to be addressed. 

PJ says the show of support Monday touched his heart. He told us that the entire family is struggling with the loss. PJ says he and Lenyia's grandmother helped to raise her alongside their daughter, and he says she lived with them from the day she was born. He says she was a curious child who loved to sing and cook. PJ says several generations of his family went to school in the district, some attending Ford Middle School. 

"Her family is very connected and deeply rooted in this community," said Joel Zylstra, a spokesperson for Franklin Pierce Schools.

Zylstra says the district is taking a look at its policies and procedures.

"There are concerns about the overall environment in schools right now, there are concerns about how schools are responding where there is a complaint," said Zylstra. 

According to data from the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), Ford Middle School reports more sixth graders and more female students receiving significant disciplinary actions than normal for Washington.

As far as the recent altercation, Zylstra says a video taken by another student and school surveillance video have been given to investigators. He said the incident didn't happen in a classroom and talked about next steps Monday.

"I think you’ll hear from teachers, from building administrators, this is something everyone wants to address," said Zylstra. 

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PJ says 11 years was not enough with his granddaughter.

"They are not protecting our kids, it used to be an anti-bullying district, and that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore," said Jennifer Pitigliano.

Parents, grandparents and caregivers are planning to attend a school board meeting to address the issue later this week. They anticipate it will be a packed house. Students are also planning a walkout this week.