Suicide of 9-Year-Old Isn't School's Fault
(CN) - A Texas school district is not liable for a bullied fourth grader's tragic suicide in the school nurse's bathroom, the 5th Circuit ruled.
Montana Lance was just 9 years old when he hanged himself with his belt in a bathroom of the school nurse's office in 2010.
The child had just returned to Stewarts Creek Elementary School after an eight-day stint at an alternative school where he went for pulling a penknife on Stewarts Creek classmates who had threatened him.
Montana's parents sued the Lewisville school district, claiming it failed to prevent their son's suicide by ignoring complaints he was being bullied.
Stewart Creek students allegedly bullied the learning disabled Montana since kindergarten, repeatedly calling him "gay" because his speech impairment gave him a lisp.
School officials knew about the abuse, but labeled him a "bad child" and "tattletale" for reporting the bullying, the Lances said.
Montana repeatedly told his parents and Lewisville's mental health professionals that he wanted to kill himself, according to the complaint.
The Lances say the school district gave only "lip service" to its bullying policy, and instead "actually fostered a climate where bullying and harassment was rampant and when it occurred, did not know how to respond."
A federal judge nevertheless ruled that the school had no constitutional duty to protect Montana from his classmates.
The 5th Circuit affirmed Friday, finding that the school did not show deliberate indifference to Montana's bullying. Instead it actively talked to students about bullying and threatened to discipline students for hitting him, the court found.
"Because the record evidences a pattern of active responses by the school district to incidents involving Montana, no such discriminatory intent against Montana and his disability may be imputed to the school district," Judge Stephen Higginson wrote for a three-judge panel.
There is no evidence the school should have known Montana was at a high risk of suicide, especially when his psychologists judged that he was not an imminent danger to himself, the New Orleans-based court found.
"Days before his death, Montana met with a psychologist, Katie Besly. Besly testified that Montana 'did not give any indication that he was intending to end his life,'" Higginson wrote. "Further, hours before his death, Montana met with Vice Principal Teddy, who testified that his 'demeanor was cheerful' and that '[h]is death was a complete shock to me.'"
The school district did not create a dangerous situation for Montana because it took no affirmative action to increase the chance he would commit suicide, the court concluded.