School’s Inaction Justifies Suit Over Teen’s Suicide

     (CN) – The family of a 16-year-old boy who hanged himself just hours after he confided in a school counselor has a case for negligence, the Delaware Supreme Court ruled.
     On Nov. 2, 2009, a student at Newark High School reported to a teacher that his friend, Roger “Mac” Ellerbe, was contemplating suicide. The next day Margette Finley, a woman contracted to provide behavioral intervention services to the Christina School District, met with Ellerbe and his former girlfriend. Ellerbe reported that he had tried to suffocate himself the previous weekend, and wanted to hurt himself and others.
     After talking with Ellerbe for over four hours, Finney determined that he was no longer suicidal and sent him back to class.
     Finney, who “has no training in adolescent psychology, teenage depression, or adolescent suicide,” then emailed Ellerbe’s teachers, the assistant principal and other school counselors, informing them that she did not believe him to be a threat to himself or others.
     Although school district regulations require that a parent or guardian be notified of a student’s “crisis situation,” including suicidal statements or actions, the school took no action.
     Ellerbe hanged himself in the basement of his grandmother’s house that evening.
     Ellerbe’s family and the administrators of his estate sued the Christina School District, Newark High School and school officials under the Delaware wrongful death statute. Their complaint alleged that the school owed Ellerbe a common-law duty of care “based upon the existence of a special relationship between a school and its students.”
     A state judge ruled in favor of the defendants, finding that no duty existed.
     Though the Delaware Supreme Court affirmed the ruling, it reinstated the suit based on the plaintiffs’ argument, introduced on appeal, that the school’s failure to follow district regulations constituted negligence per se.
     “The issue whether a school district can be liable for the suicide of a student committed off of the school’s property is an issue of first impression in Delaware,” Justice Henry DuPont Ridgely wrote for a five-member, en banc panel.
     For the purposes of the wrongful death statute, no special relationship existed between Ellerbe and the defendants, the panel found. In addition, the school did voluntarily accept a duty of care because Ellerbe was not in its custody at the time of the suicide.
     But, “because State Board of Education regulations have the force of law and violations of state laws and ordinances enacted for the safety of others is negligence per se … violations of Board of Education regulations promulgated for safety purposes constituted negligence per se,” Ridgely wrote.
     By requiring school districts to “adopt and publish specific plans to deal with students who have suicidal intentions, and include a requirement to contact a parent or guardian immediately when a child ‘is clearly dangerous to themselves,'” state officials clearly wanted the regulations to be binding, even if they did not specify a penalty for violation.
     The panel remanded the case for further proceedings.

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