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Bullying and Suicide: Are Schools Liable?

By: Jennifer A. Crissman, Woodruff Family Law Group

 

Bullying in the classroom is, unfortunately, a continuing epidemic both nationally, as well as in the Triad. A new case out of Ohio has recently made news on this topic. An eight-year-old boy named Gabriel Taye from Ohio hanged himself from his bunk bed after being continually bullied at his grade school. The parents of the young boy have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Cincinnati Public Schools, asserting that the school is liable for the child’s death. The lawsuit states that school officials knew about the bullying but were indifferent to the situation and allowed a dangerous school environment to flourish for Gabriel.

Currently, the case law on school liability in the suicide of a student is somewhat sparse. There are two cases which make up the primary law on the issue: Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, which deals with sexual harassment in schools, and Stiles v. Grainger County Board of Education, No. 01-91360 (6th Circuit, March 25, 2016), a 6th Circuit case which deals with bullying and sexual harassment. The main thrust of the cases is that schools are liable where the school’s deliberate indifference to the harassing behavior makes students vulnerable to further harassment or causes them to undergo harassment. Ultimately, the Court must determine what the school was aware of, and what, if any, remedial actions the school took after learning of the harassing behavior.

These two cases do not deal with the issue of suicide, as the students in these cases survived the bullying. In some ways, it may be more difficult for the Ohio court to ascertain the school’s liability as the student Gabriel Taye is not present to testify to the bullying behavior he had to endure and what the school and his teachers were aware of.                      Until case law catches up to the epidemic of school bullying and increased suicide rates, it falls to parents to observe and assist their children. While schools have a responsibility to maintain a safe environment for all children, as parents it is vital that you are an advocate for your child. If you see any changes in your child’s behavior, talk with the child, talk with teachers, school staff, counselors or anyone else who may know what is happening in your child’s life.

If you are in the midst of a divorce, parents should be especially observant. A serious loss, such as a death in the family, divorce, separation or a broken relationship, are situational risk factors which may place your child at increased risk for suicidal thoughts or behaviors. As a parent, it is vital to know the signs of a child who may be struggling with suicidal thoughts. The American Psychological Association lists the following warning signs to watch for:

  • Talking about dying
  • Change in personality
  • Change in behavior
  • Change in sleep patterns
  • Change in eating habits
  • Fear of losing control
  • Low self-esteem
  • No hope for the future
  • The American Psychological Association also has on their website a list of resources if you notice any of these signs in your child: http://www.apa.org/research/action/suicide.aspx.

If you notice any of these signs in your child, get help immediately. Talk to your child but also get professional intervention. A contentious divorce can make children feel like they cannot speak openly to either parent. It is vital to get the child counseling with a qualified professional who can help de-escalate the situation and aid the child in coping with and processing these feelings.

Ultimately schools have a responsibility to address bullying and harassment that they are aware of, but the parents are on the front line of defense in this fight. Parents are the experts on their children; school officials are not. If you notice any warning signs in your child, act immediately. Suicide is preventable, and even though the school may carry fault, no one ever wants to file a wrongful death suit.