romy vilsaint haitian boy
Romy Vilsaint, 12, passed away May 7, after complaining of being punched in the head. Twitter photo

One month after 12-year-old Romy Vilsant died after a bullying incident in which he was reportedly punched in the head, his grieving family is now trying to plan the boy’s funeral. In the midst of making arrangements, his relatives also vowed to seek a second opinion in Romy’s death, after the New York City medical examiner’s report said the fifth-grader died of natural causes related to a peptic ulcer. 

“Twelve year olds don’t just die like that because of an ulcer,” said Jeanne Vilsaint, Romy’s godmother. “We are waiting for our own private results to see if we get the same conclusion.” 

Those results, Vilsaint said, will come from the same private examiner who conducted an independent autopsy on George Floyd, at the cost of over $5,000. She drew parallels to the murder of Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, after which the county medical examiner identified aggravating factors like drug use and underlying health conditions, but not as the primary cause of death. 

The Vilsaint family does not yet have a date for when the independent autopsy will be complete. Dr. Michael Baden, a former New York City medical examiner who conducted the autopsy of Floyd last year, did not return a message via his website requesting comment. Dr. Allecia Wilson, who also conducted the Floyd autopsy, said in an email she is not involved in Romy’s case.

Vilsaint said the family was unaware of any peptic ulcer, defined as an open sore that develops on the lining of the stomach. To her knowledge, she said Romy did not complain about any common ulcer symptoms, like stomach pain, before his death. 

Romy died May 7 at Kings County Hospital, after complaining of head pain. In the days prior, he had recounted to family members that he was bullied at school, assaulted and punched in the head by another student. The New York Police Department public information office confirmed in a June 8 email that there have been no arrests. 

The investigation into Romy’s death is still ongoing. 

Since receiving the body on June 5, the family has planned a viewing and funeral ceremony to take place June 24-25, Jeanne Vilsaint said. Things have not gotten much easier over the past month. 

“He would tell me, ‘you don’t need to worry, when you get older I’m going to take care of you,’” said Jeanne Vilsaint, recalling a memory of her nephew. Some days are better than others, Vilsaint said, but Fridays, the day of the week when Romy passed away, are particularly tough. 

“It really doesn’t make sense, you just get adjusted, but I don’t think you ever get over it,” said Vilsaint

Romy’s mother and two twin four-year-old sisters live in Haiti. Although the mother intends to travel for the funeral, it was unclear if she would be able to, Vilsaint said, due to the COVID-19 pandemic in Haiti and potential travel restrictions. 

As of June 8, Vilsaint, who is the sister-in-law of Romy’s father Romain Vilsaint, said the family had not received any condolences from Romy’s former school, PS 361 in Flatbush. 

Parents with children at the school complained about PS 361’s lack of transparency about Romy’s death, some saying they first heard about the incident days later, in the news media. The Haitian Times also reported that the Department of Education commissioned an investigation into the incident last month. 

But the Vilsaints have also sought legal help, to demand more answers. Eric Schwarz, an attorney representing the family, filed a petition June 4 in Brooklyn Supreme Court, demanding school records, including incident reports and video footage, related to Romy from early May. Schwarz said he hopes to obtain records this week, if the petition is granted by a judge. 

Per the petition, the city Board of Education are “intended defendants” in a potential lawsuit if the family does not obtain the requested records. 

“[Romain Vilsaint] entrusted the respondents with the care and supervision of his son while at school,” Schwarz wrote in the petition. “While school administration has provided minimal information, it is not nearly sufficient to conduct a complete and thorough investigation into the circumstances surrounding [Romy’s] death.” 

Given the way things have gone, Jeanne Vilsaint said she is not certain the family would receive the requested records in a timely manner. She voiced her frustration that the family has received few answers in the past month. 

“If somebody would tell you the child would die, a month would go by and you wouldn’t even have an answer, would you believe it?” Vilsaint said, incredulously. “If they tell you that happened in Haiti, OK, maybe [the family] would never hear anything, but here? What happened?” 

Sam is a reporter for The Haitian Times and a 2020 Report for America fellow. He has covered Haiti and its diaspora since 2018. His work has also appeared in USA Today, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Haiti Liberte. Sam can be reached at sam@haitiantimes.com or on Twitter @sambojarski.

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