No School Liability for Child’s Tragic Suicide

     SHERMAN, Texas (CN) – A school district is not liable because a bullied 9-year-old who killed himself on its property, a federal judge ruled.
     The 10-page order adopts the recommendation of a magistrate judge to grant Lewisville Independent School District motion partial summary judgment.
     Jason and Deborah Lance sued Lewisville and several school officials in January 2011, alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act and Texas law.
     A year earlier, their son, Montana Lance, had hanged himself with his belt in a bathroom of the school nurse’s office. Montana had just returned to Stewarts Creek Elementary after an eight-day stint at an alternative school where he had been assigned for pulling a penknife on Stewarts Creek classmates who had threatened him.
     The Lances say their son had been previously diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, emotional disturbance and speech impairment. They said Stewart Creek students had bullied their son from kindergarten through fourth grade. School officials allegedly knew about the abuse, but labeled him a “bad child” and “tattletale” for reporting the bullying.
     Montana had repeatedly told his parents and Lewisville’s mental health professionals that he wanted to kill himself, according to the complaint. But despite additional psychological assessments ordered by Lewisville, it failed to add the diagnoses of major depressive disorder, autism and Asperger’s syndrome to Montana’s individualized education plan.
     On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Ron Clark agreed that the Lances failed to show special-relationship and state-created danger theories of liability.
     “There is no evidence that Montana was incarcerated, involuntarily committed, or in foster care when he was placed in the office area on the day of his death,” Clark wrote.
     Citing precedent, the judge said that “compulsory education laws alone do not create a special relationship.”
     “Compulsory education laws restrict a child’s freedom by definition, and the specific location of Montana on the day of his death does not compel a different result,” the 10-page order states. “School officials did not lock Montana in the restroom; Montana did. And there is no indication Montana could not leave at the end of the school day, or that if his parents had wanted to pick him up from school early they could not have done so.”
     Lewisville also did not have a constitutional duty to Montana from classmates, according to the ruling.
     “Crediting plaintiffs’ allegations, the constitutional violation alleged – bodily integrity -was caused by the bullying by other students at Stewart’s Creek and Montana’s own actions on the day of his death,” Clark wrote. “Defendants may not have adequately investigated these incidents, but, as discussed above, defendants have no constitutional duty under the facts of this case and Covington to protect Montana from private actors.”
     The Lances furthermore did not show that Lewisville employees discriminated against Montana because of his disabilities.
     “Montana’s death is tragic, but plaintiffs’ summary judgment record still does not reveal a claim for disability discrimination,” Clark wrote. “Nowhere in plaintiffs’ voluminous record is there any evidence that Montana was bullied or treated differently by school administration because of his disability, or his membership in any other federally protected class. … To the contrary, what plaintiffs’ record reveals is that defendants had a consistent policy of ignoring bullying against all students.”

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