Court Drops Claims in Case Over Teen’s Suicide

     TAMPA, Fla. (CN) – A Hillsboro County school board dismissed a civil rights claim from a lawsuit by parents of a teenage girl who killed herself one day after administrators, without informing the parents, sent the girl for counseling because they noticed cuts on her thigh.

     On Sept. 11, 2009, a teacher at Beth Shields Middle School noticed cuts on H.S.W.’s thigh and, as per the School Board’s suicide-prevention policy, sent her to the principal’s office. Both the teacher and principal knew that the 13-year-old H.S.W. “was experiencing extraordinary ridicule and harassment from other students because of a prior, juvenile indiscretion: H.[S.W.] texted a suggestive image of herself to a boy at the end of the prior school year,” according to a document quoted in the ruling.
     Charles and Donna Witsell claim a school social worker provided their daughter H.S.W. with “involuntary mental health counseling,” but never notified other school officials.
     H.S.W. committed suicide in her bedroom the next day, and the Witsells discovered a “no-harm contract” among their daughter’s belongings. In this document between H.S.W. and the social worker, “H.S.W. agreed not to ‘attempt suicide or die by suicide’ and to call the social worker if H.S.W. again developed suicidal thoughts,” according to the ruling.
     The Witsells sued the School Board of Hillsborough County, Fla., for negligence and for violating their 14th Amendment rights when the school “pla[ced] [H.S.W.] in a worse situation than if [the School Board] and [the School Board’s] personnel had not acted at all,” and “demonstrated deliberate indifference to the constitutional rights and interests of parents,” the ruling states.
     The board answered the negligence claim and moved to dismiss the 14th Amendment counts.
     U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday granted the motion on June 20 with leave to file an amended complaint.
     “The plaintiffs allege a ‘failure to train,’ but fail to allege facts supporting a deliberate indifference to either an obvious need ‘for more or different training’ or an inadequacy ‘so likely to result in the violation of constitutional rights,'” Merryday wrote. “The plaintiffs allege no fact showing that the School Board actively endorsed or approved the social worker’s decision not to inform the plaintiffs of H.S.W.’s suicide risk. Rather, the plaintiffs allege an admittedly tragic but isolated incident in which a social worker failed to follow established protocol.
     “Furthermore, … the plaintiffs provide no factual support for the alleged claim of deliberate indifference,” he added. “Absent a custodial relationship, no factual allegations support the claim that the School Board (through the conduct of the social worker) rendered H.S.W. more vulnerable to harm.” (Parentheses in original.)

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