Student Suicide and the Law: The Courts Are Reluctant to hold School Districts and Their Employees Liable
by Richard Fossey & Perry A. Zirkel - January 11, 2010
School districts and their employees are occasionally sued after a student commits suicide, but courts are reluctant to hold them liable for these tragic events. Thus, an educator’s responsibility to prevent a student from committing suicide is primarily a professional and ethical obligation and not a legal duty.
On March 28, 2006, Anthony Soltero, a fourteen-year-old eighth grader in the Ontario-Montclair School District, walked out of De Anza Middle School during the school day to join a mass protest against an immigration reform bill that was pending in Congress. Two days later, Gene Bennett, the schools vice principal, called Anthony and two fellow truants to his office and sharply reprimanded the group. That evening, Anthony went home and committed suicide. Anthonys parents sued Bennett, another administrator, and the Ontario-Montclair School District, claiming that they were liable for their sons death based on negligence. A federal trial court summarily rejected their negligence claim. In June 2009, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed (Corales v. Bennett, 2009).
Under California tort law principles, the Ninth Circuit ruled, a defendant cannot be held liable for another persons suicide unless the defendant did something to cause the decedent to have an uncontrollable impulse to commit suicide (p. 573). Further, a defendant is not liable for a persons suicide where the negligent wrong only causes a mental condition in which the injured person is able to realize the nature of the act of suicide and has the power to control it if he so desires (p. 572). The facts were undisputed that Anthony had gone back to class after meeting with the vice principal, later talked with his mother and a friend, and then penned a suicide note before he took his own life. Thus, in the courts view, Anthony had an opportunity to appreciate the consequences of his own actions before he committed suicide; consequently, school authorities could not be held liable for his tragic decision.
Likewise, in another 2009 decision, the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled that school officials could not be held liable for a students suicide in the absence of outrageous conduct toward the student. In Mikell v. School Administrative Unit # 33 (2009), Joshua Markiewicz, a seventh-grade student, told a teachers aide that he wanted to blow his brains out. The aide alerted the schools guidance counselor, and she told Joshuas mother about the incident. The counselor also had Joshua sign a contract for safety. Allegedly, however, the counselor did nothing else regarding Joshuas threat. Joshua committed suicide about two months later.
Upholding the lower courts ruling in favor of the school district, the New Hampshire Supreme Court concluded that school employees had done nothing extreme or outrageous that might have caused Joshua to have an uncontrollable impulse to commit suicide. Alternatively, they had not assumed a duty to care for Joshua by taking physical custody of him, as would apply in a hospital setting. Therefore, the school defendants could not be held liable for Joshuas decision to end his life.
These two decisions are the most recent examples of a long line of cases that family members of student-suicide victims have filed against schools and school officials, accusing them of some sort of wrongdoing that caused the suicide (Fossey & Zirkel, 2004; Zirkel & Fossey, 2005). In the vast majority of these cases, courts have ruled that schools and school employees are not responsible for these tragedies. The students families have sued under both common law (i.e., negligence) and constitutional theories, but the overwhelming trend is for courts to find that schools, teachers, counselors, and administrators are not liable for the suicide death of a student.
Previous Case Law
Although parents filed the first lawsuits arising from a students suicide or attempted suicide more than 25 years ago (Flores v. Edinburg Consolidated Independent School District, 1984; Gathright v. Lincoln Insurance Company, 1985), the first court decision to recognize a cause of action against school employees for a students suicide was Eisel v. Board of Education of Montgomery County (1991). In that case, Marylands highest court said that, school counselors have a duty to use reasonable means to attempt to prevent a suicide when they are on notice that a child or adolescent student [has] suicidal intent (p. 456).
Since the Eisel decision, few courts have followed the Maryland courts lead to recognize a cause of action against schools or school employees for a students suicide. Instead, they have relied on a variety of legal theories to dispose of these cases in favor of the school defendants.
First, in many states, schools and their professional employees have statutory or common law immunity from negligence liability, and courts have dismissed several student-suicide cases on that basis. For example, in Fowler v. Szostek (1995), Brandi Nelson, a fourteen-year-old middle school student, shot herself after school administrators suspended her from school for a drug offense. Brandis parents filed a negligence lawsuit, but a Texas appellate court ruled that the school officials who administered the suspension were immune from suit under Texas law.
Second, as the recent Corales and the Mikell cases demonstrate, in some states an individual simply cannot be held responsible for another persons suicide absent some willful or wanton act that is so outrageous that the victim is driven to suicide without a conscious regard for the consequences of the act. So far, no court has held a school employee liable for a students suicide based on this limited exception.
Third, in a few cases, courts ruled that a lawsuit stemming from a students suicide was, in effect, a cause of action for educational malpractice, which the judiciary has soundly rejected. For example, in Nalepa v. Plymouth-Canton Community School District (1994), an elementary school boy who committed suicide by hanging had watched a film at school that depicted an older boy twice trying to commit suicideonce by hanging. The parents sued, arguing that school officials had been negligent in showing the film. In essence, the court concluded that the parents were accusing school authorities of educational malpractice, a cause of action that the court refused to recognize.
Finally, some courts have dismissed student suicide cases on the simple ground that it could not be shown that anything the school authorities did had caused the student to commit suicide. As the Fourth Circuit said about a troubled teenager who killed himself by hanging: [F]rom the record, which contains evidence of numerous stressors in Aarons life, it is impossible to discern why Aaron tragically took his own life, and to conclude that the [School] Boards failures were causally related to Aarons suicide is conjecture (Scott v. Montgomery County Board of Education, 1997, p. 17).
Do these cases mean that school districts have zero exposure to liability for a students suicide? No. In a Florida case, a school district was held partly responsible for a students suicide when a boy took his own life by hanging, but in that case evidence had been presented that the boy had twice tried to hang himself while at school and that, despite their knowledge of these attempts, school authorities failed to take appropriate action (Wyke v. Polk County School Board, 1997). Even in that case, however, the jury concluded that the deceased boys mother and a caretaker shared responsibility for the boys death. Thus, the school district was only liable for one third of the damages that the jury awarded.
Parents have sometimes brought constitutional claims against school districts and their employees, claiming that school officials violated some constitutional right that led to a students suicide. So far, only one federal appellate court has recognized a constitutional cause of action based on a students suicide (Armijo v. Wagon Mound Public Schools, 1998). No published court decision has held school officials liable for a students suicide under a constitutional theory.
Conclusion: Preventing Student Suicides is Primarily a Professional Obligation
Regardless of the liability issues, educators have a professional and ethical obligation to take reasonable steps to prevent a student from committing suicide, when they know the student is at risk. For example, in two recent cases, students took their own lives after so-called sexting incidents. In both cases, a female student took sexually provocative photos of herself on a cell phone and became distressed when other students widely circulated the photos (Ackerman, 2009). If school officials knew that a students embarrassing image was being passed about among other students, they may have had an ethical obligation to take some sort of action. Indeed, an ethical standard of the American School Counselor Association states that the professional school counselor will inform parents or other appropriate authorities when the students condition indicates a clear and imminent danger to the student or others (American School Counselor Association, 2004). This ASCA provision provides clear guidance that a school counselor who knows a student is a suicide risk has a duty to contact the students parents.
Nevertheless, educators should not confuse legal liability with ethical norms. By and large, courts are reluctant to hold school districts and educators liable for a students decision to commit suicide. Although courts have ruled on a variety of legal grounds, they generally agree that school officials should not be held responsible for these tragic acts of self-destruction.
Ackerman, S. (2009, December 12). Students speak out on sexting. Tampa Tribune, p. 1.
American School Counselor Association (2004). Ethical Standards for School Counselors. Alexandria, VA: Author.
Armijo v. Wagon Mound Public Schools, 159 F.3d 1253 (10th Cir. 1998).
Corales v. Bennett, 567 F.2d 554 (9th Cir. 2009).
Eisel v. Board of Education of Montgomery County, 597 A.2d 447 (Md. 1991).
Flores v. Edinburg Consolidated Independent School District, 741 F.2d 773 (5th Cir. 1984).
Fossey, R., & Zirkel, P. A. (2004). Liability for student suicide in the wake of Eisel. Texas Wesleyan Law Review, 10, 403-439.
Gathright v. Lincoln Insurance Company, 688 S.W.2d 931 (Ark. 1985).
Mikell v. School Administrative Unit # 33, 972 A.2d 1050 (N.H. 2009).
Nalepa v. Plymouth-Canton Community School District, 525 N.W.2d 897 (Mich. Ct. App. 1994).
Scott v. Montgomery County Board of Education, No. 96-245, 1997 U.S LEXIS 21258 (4th Cir. Aug. 12, 1997) (per curiam) (not designated for publication).
Wyke v. Polk County School Board, 137 F.3d 1292 (11th Cir. 1998).
Zirkel, P. A., & Fossey, R. (2005). Liability for student suicide. Wests Education Law Reporter, 197, 489-497.