Chadron State College promised to honor a student after her suicide. Her family says ‘they’re hiding it’

Sept. 20, 2022, 5 a.m. ·

A photo collage includes a picture of a smiling young woman with long, straight hair, a stone plaque reading “In memory of Fatima Larios” and an email excerpt.
Fatima Larios died by suicide in 2015 while attending Chadon State College. The college put in a memorial as part of a legal settlement with her family. (Collage by Carlos Moreno, KCUR)

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Fatima Larios’ family hoped school officials could use her death as a way to help others trapped in abusive relationships seek support. Years later, the family thinks the Nebraska school has quietly tried to distance itself from the tragedy.

When more than three years of “emotionally draining litigation” between a Nebraska college and the parents of a 19-year-old student who died by suicide ended with a settlement, both sides promised to turn the tragedy into an opportunity.

Chadron State College and the Nebraska State College System agreed in 2020 to pay $900,000 to Lissette Larios Roohbakhsh and Nelson Larios to resolve their claims that college officials failed to protect their daughter. Fatima Larios, a member of Chadron State’s NCAA softball team, was found dead in her boyfriend’s campus dorm room in 2015.

Before her death, Fatima’s family and friends on California’s central coast knew her as a gifted athlete with a sunny personality who had a knack for lifting the spirits of those around her.

They didn’t know — and wouldn’t learn until it was too late — that Fatima suffered from a physically and emotionally abusive relationship with her boyfriend.

Chadron State staff knew about the abuse, court records show. Employees reached out to Fatima, but her parents said the college didn’t do enough to prevent the alleged bruises on her arms and legs, her withdrawal from friends and eventually her death.

Fatima’s family didn’t just receive payment from the settlement. Chadron State agreed to additional sentimental requests, the type that can be unusual in legal agreements. Those included a memorial to Fatima on campus, a scholarship in her name, suicide prevention training for staff and students and assistance with the school’s policies related to sexual violence and sex harassment.

The settlement gave Chadron State and the Nebraska State College System, which oversees the northwest Nebraska college, sole discretion to carry out its terms. The institutions promised to consider the family’s wishes.

Fatima’s family hoped the settlement could inspire better support on campus to prevent future tragedies. Chadron State President Randy Rhine promised the school would take that opportunity in a joint opinion piece the parties published in The Chadron Record, a newspaper that serves the community of more than 5,000 in northwest Nebraska.

“Fatima’s legacy will forever have a special place at Chadron State College,” they wrote. “Together, we recognize the importance of turning Fatima’s death into an opportunity for education and remembrance.”

But more than two years after signing the agreement and more than seven years after Fatima’s death, the family believes the school has hidden their daughter’s legacy, not commemorated it.

“I don’t know if I’m angry, I don’t know if I’m disappointed,” Fatima’s stepfather Mickey Roohbakhsh said. “I don’t know what needs to happen. But to me, they really haven’t learned a thing through this process.”

Attorneys for Chadron State and the Nebraska State College System said they have legally abided by the agreement, but Fatima’s family feel they’ve done the bare minimum.

Rhine and other Chadron State staff declined to speak with Nebraska Public Media News. Attorneys for the college said in statements that the school fulfilled the settlement terms and worked to help the Larios family heal.

An investigation by Nebraska Public Media News found emails that show Chadron State President Randy Rhine instructed staff to keep Fatima’s family out of the memorial planning process soon after signing the settlement agreement. And then Chadron State spent less than 3% of what it could have on Fatima’s memorial.

The investigation also found that the scholarship is not publicized or attached to Fatima’s life and legacy in any public way, despite her family providing a detailed description they hoped would be connected to the award.

“We wanted to take something tragic and turn it into something positive for future kids,” said Nelson Larios, Fatima’s father. “Chadron has taken the opposite position to that opportunity to learn something good out of tragedy. They just want to comply, and keep it secret so nobody needs to know that this ever happened.”

“We wanted to take something tragic and turn it into something positive for future kids. Chadron has taken the opposite position to that opportunity to learn something good out of tragedy. They just want to comply, and keep it secret so nobody needs to know that this ever happened.”

Chadron State, a college with an enrollment of about 2,000, has since had other issues with the safety of women on its campus.

In December 2021 – less than two years after settling with Fatima’s family – a jury found Chadron State had failed in its responsibility to support a female student after she was raped on campus. The federal court ordered the school to pay $300,000 to the anonymous woman. That case is currently under appeal.

Between the settlement with Fatima’s family and the payout to the female student, the small college is on the hook for $1.2 million in the aftermath of young women being harmed on its campus in less than two years.

Coming to Chadron State

Fatima grew up on the Monterey Peninsula on California’s central coast. Her family said she made people laugh easily and was a natural athlete who played softball, basketball, water polo and soccer.

Fatima transferred to Chadron State in 2014 after spending one year at Austin Peay State University in Tennessee. Chadron State’s close-knit softball team appealed to Fatima, and her teammates and other students quickly caught on to her bright spirit and positive impact on others.

A girl crouches in an athletic position and looks to the side of the camera. She is in a softball uniform and wears a softball glove.
Fatima plays softball as a young girl. “She started competing since she started crawling, basically,” her father Nelson Larios said. “She had an edge for competition but her whole thing about competing wasn’t about putting anybody down, it was about lifting them up.” (Photo courtesy of the Larios and Roohbakhsh family)

“Full of energy and with a vibrant personality, Larios had a smile so contagious that it rubbed off on others,” was how a sports columnist for the Monterey Herald, Fatima’s hometown newspaper, described her in an article covering her death. “It’s not just her own family or Santa Catalina that are grieving. It’s a community that stretches up and down the Monterey Peninsula. Yes, she was that popular.”

Fatima’s family didn’t know her personality would dim after they dropped her off at Chadron State.

“I walked away feeling that I was leaving my daughter at a safe school, in a small town where everyone is about family,” Nelson Larios said.

Enrolling at Chadron State reunited Fatima with her high school boyfriend, a student and football player at the school.

Several students and others at Chadron State saw evidence that he abused Fatima.

The couple fought so much and so loudly in their dorm rooms that other residents regularly complained to housing employees that they couldn’t sleep, according to documents filed in court.

Dorm staff intervened to ask the couple to quiet down and threatened to call the police. Court documents show the fights were mentioned in at least eight housing reports.

Fatima’s softball teammates told lawyers they had noticed large bruises on her legs and handprints on her arms. According to the players, Fatima told them her boyfriend was beating her.

The teammates told lawyers in a deposition they had noticed Fatima isolating herself and crying. Softball coaches told lawyers that she would wear long-sleeve shirts, even during hot workouts.

Fatima’s teammates flagged the abuse to an assistant softball coach, and the report made its way to Chadron State’s Title IX office. Schools that receive federal funding are obligated to protect students from sex-based discrimination – which includes dating violence as well as sexual harassment and assault – through their Title IX offices.

Shelley Dunbar, Chadron State’s part-time Title IX coordinator, sent Fatima a copy of the school’s seven-page policy on sexual violence and sex-based harassment in a letter and an email. Fatima messaged back, asking why the information was sent to her.

Read Chadron's Title IX emails to Fatima here

Dunbar said that while the information may or may not pertain to Fatima, she was obligated to “provide policy information and to reach out to students when concerns that may be in violation of Policy 3020 are brought to my attention.”

Fatima never responded.

In a separate email, Dunbar suggested Fatima’s softball coaches meet with her. According to messages between the staff, Fatima did not “open up … or express a need for assistance” and attributed her change in personality to homesickness.

That was the end of Chadron State’s attempts to reach out to Fatima, but court documents show the violence continued. Less than three months later, Fatima died by suicide.

Fatima’s family said her death was the first indication they had that she struggled while attending Chadron State.

“There was no history. She had no problems. She went to a doctor for a regular checkup and got her teeth cleaned,” Fatima’s stepfather Mickey Roohbakhsh said. “All of this occurred when she spent those few months at Chadron.”

They wouldn’t learn about the reports of suspected dating violence until October 2015, nine months after Fatima’s death, after the family hired attorneys from the Chicago law firm Romanucci & Blandin to inquire about her suicide, according to court documents.

“We would have gotten a plane, drove, rode a horse to bring her home instantaneously if we had known,” Mickey said. “They saw this unfortunate incident occurring over and over, but they didn’t do anything to help this scenario. Fatima would have been alive today, had they done what it was incumbent on them to do as educators.”

‘They just want this thing to disappear’

Fatima’s mother and father, Lissette Larios Roohbakhsh and Nelson Larios, sued the school in federal court in Nebraska in January 2017. The family signed a settlement with Chadron State College and the Nebraska State College System in April 2020.

The institutions did not admit liability or wrongdoing, but agreed to pay the family $900,000. As requested by Fatima’s family, Chadron State agreed to consult annually with an outside expert on Title IX compliance for 2020, 2021 and 2022. It also promised to provide annual suicide prevention training to its staff and students for the next ten years.

Chadron State commissioned the feedback from outside experts and now employs a full-time Title IX coordinator. The school also bolstered existing suicide prevention programs and Title IX training in the years since the agreement.

Then there were the settlement’s sentimental items: The school agreed to construct and maintain a memorial to Fatima on campus for 10 years. It agreed to establish the “Fatima Larios Spirit Scholarship” and give the award to a softball player for 10 years.

It agreed to allow the family to visit the dorm room where Fatima died, and promised to attempt to locate her softball glove and give it to the family.

College president Randy Rhine wrote a letter to Fatima’s family to acknowledge their daughter’s life and death. And the family and the school system wrote about the settlement terms and the chance to honor Fatima in The Chadron Record.

“Chadron State College and Fatima’s family come together today to commit to steps that will ensure Fatima’s legacy is one that helps others,” they wrote.

But to Fatima’s family, that commitment has fallen flat. They feel their daughter’s legacy has been hidden.

“Chadron is just trying to downplay this tragedy,” Mickey said. “They didn’t take any steps necessary to protect her, and now their actions are a clear message that they don’t want to learn from this. They just want this thing to disappear.”

Nebraska Public Media News visited the college campus and submitted public records requests to learn whether the college had constructed a memorial and established a scholarship.

Chadron said it would spend up to $25,000 on a memorial for Fatima.

Public records obtained by Nebraska Public Media News show the school spent a little more than $600 on the memorial’s materials. That’s less than 3% of the amount suggested in the agreement.

The school bought a stone plaque and a young bur oak tree and placed both behind the visitor’s dugout on the softball field where Fatima would have practiced. She never played in a regular competition for the Chadron Eagles, dying just a week before the season opener.

A stone plaque sits on the ground and reads “In Memory of Fatima Larios, Advocate. Athlete, and Ally.” It sits beneath a young tree that is bare. A softball dugout is in the background, and backpacks line the fences.
Fatima’s memorial sits behind the visitor dugout during a softball game. (Photo by Elizabeth Rembert, Nebraska Public Media News)

The family asked for the memorial to include Fatima’s name and birth and death dates, the softball bat and glove, the heart-shaped ribbon design and her Chadron State jersey number and the text “Advocate, Athlete and Ally.” They also wanted it in a prominent place within an athletic facility used by the softball team.

Still, the family said it falls short of what they expected. They hoped for a standing, full-length likeness of their daughter.

The memorial also misses what the family saw as the main point of the settlement. They said they wanted education and awareness to be central in every one of the agreement’s terms. They hoped students would learn about dating violence and the support available through the memorial and scholarship.

“There was a purpose for these things, and it’s not there,” Mickey said. “They made a small plaque and put it on the ground. There really is no education, people are not going to be able to see that. It’s like they are trying to hide it as if it never occurred.”

Emails show that while Chadron State was coordinating the memorial, a groundskeeper asked if the family would be involved. Kari Gaswick, the school’s head of administration and finance, replied that college president Randy Rhine had said they would not be a part of the process.

Email documents with highlighted text show that a groundskeeper asked if Fatima’s family would be “part of the process” related to the memorial. A response says “no, according to Dr. Rhine Fatima’s family won’t be part of the process.”
Emails show Lucinda Mays, a horticulture specialist at Chadron State College, asked if Fatima’s family would be involved in planning the memorial. Chadron State President Randy Rhine said the family would not be a part of the process, according to administration and finance head Kari Gaswick. (Collage by Elizabeth Rembert, Nebraska Public Media)

The family did not learn that the memorial had been installed on campus or what it looked like until Nebraska Public Media News visited campus and sent pictures to the family.

Adele Kimmel, one of the family’s attorneys from the firm Public Justice, said both sides entered into a good faith agreement to work together to carry out the settlement terms.

“Shame on him [Rhine],” Lissette, Fatima’s mother, said. “Shame on him for not showing any emotions to us. That is so disrespectful on his behalf. They need to learn from it and show some dignity for others.”

Rhine declined an interview with Nebraska Public Media News, but attorneys said his comment referred to “one step” in the process and that Chadron State had already received the family’s requests for the memorial.

“It also carefully considered the underlying facts of the litigation, its student body, ‘suicide contagion’ phenomenon, the College’s past practices and traditions, its budget and other nuanced factors,” the statement from the attorneys said.

In the past, the college has memorialized individuals with saplings and stone signs on campus.

“Ultimately, the College determined that a life-sized statue of Fatima was not an appropriate way to memorialize her,” the statement said.

Nebraska Public Media News learned that Chadron State has distributed a $2,000 scholarship to a softball player in the years since the settlement. There is no publicly available evidence — no advertising, no process to nominate a candidate, no public description — that indicates the recipient is informed of Fatima’s life or legacy, despite Fatima’s family providing a written description they hoped would be attached to the award.

Attorneys for the Nebraska State College System said the softball coach tells Fatima’s story to the student in a conversation about the award.

Chadron State released a total of five emails exchanged about the scholarship in response to a public records request by Nebraska Public Media News. None use the name “Fatima Larios Spirit Scholarship,” and the certificates and financial paperwork do not make note of Fatima’s name or story.

flag and scholarship emails.png
Emails between Chadron State staff do not use the name “Fatima Larios Spirit Scholarship,” which is specified in the settlement agreement. There is no publicly available evidence that Fatima’s name or story is tied to the award, but attorneys said the coach discusses Fatima with the recipient. The name of the student athlete was redacted by the college. (Collage by Elizabeth Rembert, Nebraska Public Media)

“The agreement provides that the scholarship will be awarded in Fatima’s name,” Kimmel said. “The whole point of connecting a scholarship to Fatima’s name is an educational one, to make sure students and others understand the tragedy that occurred and that students understand help is available.”

Lissette said this dismissive attitude has been a part of dealing with the school ever since she learned her daughter had died.

“It’s been seven years and they are still dealing with us the same way, since day one,” she said. “Disrespecting us.”

Attorneys for Chadron State said in a statement the college “understands that this situation is incredibly emotional for the family and all who knew Fatima. The College never conveyed anything other than the respect and solemnity the loss of a child deserves.”

Kimmel said the settlement isn’t all about legality – it’s about compassion and basic humanity, which she found lacking in Chadron State’s leadership.

“I mean, you have the president saying ‘Don’t reach out to the family about the memorial.’ What kind of a leader is that?” she said. “Regardless of whether Chadron took responsibility for causing Fatima’s death, they have to recognize that this is a tragedy and that they should be doing something to make sure no other family experiences this.”

In a statement, the college’s attorneys said the school has made efforts to help the family heal. For example, the school forgave Fatima’s account balance. It held a candlelight vigil and memorial service, and sent videos to Fatima’s family. It also paid for Fatima’s softball coach to attend a memorial service in California, and provided jerseys with Fatima’s number.

‘There’s a reality that hits you’ 

Meanwhile, Fatima’s family said communities in California and Tennessee strive to honor their daughter.

Austin Peay State University – where Fatima spent a year before transferring to Chadron State – has written to the family about how the school donates in Fatima’s name. Fatima’s school in California hosted a service in its chapel.

And the family is active in fundraising and holding events to raise awareness about dating violence.

“There’s a reality that hits you: Your kid is no longer coming home,” Nelson said. “And our community came together when that happened. Fatima is still having a positive impact on this community.”

Nelson said he thinks Chadron State still has an opportunity to remember Fatima.

“We know Fatima is still impacting people in a positive way. Chadron can use that for their own good,” he said. “But if they continue to deny that this took place, they’re putting other students in great danger. And other parents might have to get the call we did because of their lack of action.”

By way of full disclosure, Chadron State College is an underwriter of Nebraska Public Media and Paul Turman, Chancellor of the Nebraska State College System, is a member of the commission which holds the license for some of our transmitters.

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or a crisis, please reach out immediately to the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988.

If you recognize signs of domestic violence in one of your relationships or the relationship of someone you know, please contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233.

This project is part of a collaboration with NPR’s Midwest Newsroom, a partnership between NPR and member stations to provide investigative journalism and in-depth reporting with a focus on Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska.