How far does a school’s duty to provide a safe environment for students extend?
Educators’ responsibility for student safety includes the familiar concerns about slip-and-fall accidents and sports injuries. Increasingly, however, that responsibility goes beyond the physical to include mental and emotional harms, such as harassment, bullying, mental health issues, self-harm, and suicide.
The statistics are heartbreaking. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2017, 2018) reported that, as of 2017, suicide was the second most common cause of death for children and young adults from ages 10-24, claiming nearly as many lives as most illnesses combined. This rate has been on a steady increase since 1999.
To keep kids safe, educators are wise to put their efforts into identifying troubled children and preventing further anguish and trauma. But horrible things can and do happen. And when they do, questions will be raised about whether schools, districts, and their employees will be held legally responsible. Of course, as is usually the case, the answers depend on the facts involved.
Wrongful death or failure to prevent a suicide
Schools have a legal duty to take reasonable action to provide and maintain a safe environment for students. If they do so, then they cannot be held responsible for any and every injury that might occur. Still, when students are injured on school grounds, parents may bring a case alleging that the school failed to meet its obligation — and when a student dies, that claim may be for wrongful death. In most states, public schools and their employees have a certain degree of immunity against such liability, but they may lose this protection when their actions are reckless or deliberately indifferent to possible harm.
Baab v. Medina City School Board of Education (Ohio Ct. App. 2019)
In this case, students reported to the school counselor, on four separate occasions within a span of two months, that D.B. (an 8th-grade student) was cutting himself and, on one occasion, threatened suicide. The counselor followed up on the information in various ways (including talking with the student and his parent and suggesting counseling), and in response to the suicide threat, the father took D.B. to a doctor. Approximately two weeks later, though, the counselor received a new report that D.B. had sent text messages to a friend, threatening suicide. This time, the counselor took no additional action, and a few days later, D.B. died by suicide.
D.B.’s father sued the school district and the school counselor. The trial court found that the district was protected by the state’s qualified immunity while finding that the case against the counselor could go to trial. One issue to be decided would be whether the counselor had lost immunity by acting recklessly. The counselor appealed the ruling, arguing that, like the school, she should be protected by qualified immunity. The Ohio Court of Appeals upheld the trial court finding that there was a genuine question as to whether the counselor acted recklessly (i.e., in conscious disregard or indifference to a known or obvious risk of harm), thus eliminating her immunity.
Mikell v. School Admin. Unit # 33 (N.H. 2009)
Joshua was a New Hampshire middle school student who had trouble with his school environment and other students. In November 2004, a teacher’s aide overhead him state that he “wanted to blow his brains out.” The aide reported the statement to the school counselor, who called Joshua’s parents and had Joshua sign a “safety contract” but took no other action. In January 2005, Joshua had two disciplinary incidents on two consecutive days. The first involved a teacher who accused Joshua of having medicine in school when it was actually mints. The next day, Joshua tipped over a desk and called a teacher a “bitch.” He was suspended for the remainder of the day, and his mother picked him up and took him home. His mother left the house to drive his grandfather home, and when she returned, she found him dead by suicide.
Joshua’s mother sued the school district, the counselor, and the teacher, claiming that the school and its employees had a special duty to prevent the suicide and that they had failed to do so. The trial court dismissed the claim, and the New Hampshire Supreme Court upheld the dismissal finding that the duty to care for students did not include a special duty to prevent the suicide. The school district did not have exclusive custodial care of Joshua, nor had it assumed duties beyond its reasonable standard of care. The school, and its employees, had warned the family of Joshua’s suicide threats and had not acted recklessly.
In some situations, families of suicide victims have brought claims against the school that have gone beyond traditional tort claims to involve federal claims of discrimination, failure to provide special education services, and violations of civil rights.
Beam v. Western Wayne School District (M.D. Pa. 2018)
In 2008, C.B., a high school student in Pennsylvania’s Western Wayne School District, was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder. As required under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, he had an accommodation plan in place that, among other things, called for communication with parents when there was any concern over C.B.’s academic progress. In spite of this, the parents did not learn about C.B.’s falling grades until they received report cards at the end of the period. Not long after receiving failing grades in the third grading period, C.B. expressed suicidal thoughts to his therapist. Concerned about C.B.’s progress and the school’s failure to communicate, C.B.’s mother initiated a meeting with the school, and the communications plan was strengthened. But at the end of the year, C.B. failed a number of classes, without his parents being told this was likely. In addition, on the last day of school, the principal called C.B.’s mother to tell her that C.B. had been involved in a fight and the police would be coming to their house. C.B.’s grandmother went to the house, finding that he had died by suicide.
C.B.’s family filed a federal suit against the school district, alleging a number of claims for relief, including discrimination under Section 504 for not implementing C.B.’s accommodation plan. To qualify for monetary damages under Section 504, C.B.’s parents would have to show that C.B. was denied services or accommodations intentionally or with deliberate indifference and that the failure to provide services caused the student’s injury. The district court found that there was sufficient evidence to allow the case to continue.
Meyers v. Cincinnati Board of Education (S.D. Ohio 2018)
Gabriel was an Ohio 3rd grader who was subject to harassment and bullying by his peers. One day, he was knocked unconscious by another student and remained on the bathroom floor unconscious for more than seven minutes, during which time other students kicked him. Eventually school staff arrived, but rather than following the safety protocol and calling 911, staff took him the nurse’s office. An hour later, his mother was called and told that Gabriel had fainted and no further medical treatment was necessary. The next day, Gabriel was not feeling well. He had not told his mother about the attack because he had no memory of it. When his mother took him to the hospital, they did not evaluate him for head injuries. Gabriel went back to school and was again subjected to bullying. He died by suicide that night at home.
Gabriel’s family brought suit in district court, alleging in part that the school had violated Gabriel’s civil rights by acting in conscious disregard for his safety. Generally, the state’s failure to protect someone from an individual’s actions does not constitute a federal civil rights violation, but exceptions can be made when the state has created the danger or when the state actions are deliberately indifferent to a substantial danger or so egregious that they “shock the conscience.” The court found that in this case the school may have created the danger by hiding the facts of the attack from the family and failing repeatedly to address the bullying. For these reasons, the court decided that the case would proceed.
A school’s responsibility
Schools do not have an affirmative duty to prevent student suicides; however, courts have found that schools may be legally responsible
for a student’s suicide if they:
- have created a special danger of suicide,
- have not acted reasonably to warn parents of the risk of suicide, or
- acted recklessly in carrying out their responsibilities to the student.
“Absent a showing that the school affirmatively caused a suicide, the primary responsibility for safeguarding children from this danger, as from most others, is that of their parents; and even they, with direct control and intimate knowledge, are often helpless” (Hasenfus v. LaJeunesse, 1st Cir. 1999). Questions of responsibility in cases of suicide are never clear. And this is also true in a legal process trying to establish responsibility. Legal remedies are generally not emotionally satisfying for anyone involved.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017). 10 leading causes of death by age group, United States — 2017. Atlanta, GA: Author.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018, June). Suicide rising across the U.S.
Citation: Underwood, J. (2019, Oct. 28). Student suicide and school liability. Phi Delta Kappan, 101 (3), 64-65.