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Friday, July 19, 2024 | Back issues
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Teen’s Suicide Blamed on School Inquisition

PORT HURON, Mich. (CN) - School officials drove a Michigan teen to kill himself by crushing his spirit in an hours-long interrogation, the boy's father claims in court.

Steven "Jake" Jahn was starring in the school play and poised to graduate Marysville High School with a 4.0 grade point average when he drove his car into a concrete abutment on a freeway and died in 2012, according to the complaint in St. Clair County Circuit Court.

Though the 17-year-old had his whole life ahead of him, Jahn told a friend just before the senseless tragedy that "he had nothing left to live for," the complaint states.

Jahn's father says this misconception stemmed from a "mental beatdown" the boy faced that morning, March 19, at the hands of school principal William Farnsworth and vice principal Thomas Valko.

"Farnsworth and Valko were tough, seasoned authority figures at the school and they were confident that together they could break down Jake into confessing to the alleged theft" of a teacher's laptop, according to the complaint.

Denied consultation with an attorney or his parents, Jahn initially denied taking the computer several times but "was no match for [the] inquisition, and he finally broke down and confessed to taking the used laptop," his father claims.

In addition to falsely claiming that they had video proving that Jahn had the laptop, the principals told Jahn that, absent his confession, they would take the case to the police and he would be convicted of a felony and unable to attend college in the fall as planned.

Mark Hafeli, the attorney representing Jahn's father, said in a phone interview that the far more likely scenario for a juvenile with no prior record would have been probation and eventual expungement.

Any evidence indicating that the teen stole the laptop furthermore does not justify his death "from being essentially bullied by school administrators," Hafeli said.

"He was just one of those kids that is really a top student, and that's why this was such a shock to everybody because, you know, you would think they would cut him a little slack," Hafeli said in an interview.

The hours-long interrogation ended with the school expelling Jahn and forbidding him from walking at graduation, attending the senior dance, competing in the state music competition or entering school grounds, according to the complaint.

"The mental beatdown of by the defendants left Jake depressed, humiliated and hopeless," the complaint states.

Jahn's father says the principals told him they would notify Michigan State University, news that would likely upend his plans to attend that school in the fall.

"The defendants also told Jake and his father that Jake was a cold, calculating individual who was obviously disturbed and that he should be medicated, institutionalized or he should seek counseling from a psychiatrist," the complaint states.

Though Valko indicated after the meeting that "someone should follow Jake home and keep an eye on him," no administrator followed up on that recommendation, Jahn's father says.

The principals allegedly had fair warning, after observing Jahn's reaction to the interrogation and confession, that suicide was a possibility. The school has suicide and lockdown procedures, but failed to follow either and furthermore did not warn his parents, according to the complaint.

In addition to gross negligence, Jahn's father is alleging emotional distress. Assistant Superintendent Patricia Speilberg and the Marysville School District are also named as defendants.

"They [Farnsworth and Valko] used their considerable power, authority, toughness and experience and also misrepresented a number of facts during their interrogation of the plaintiff in order to break the plaintiff's will," the complaint states.

Marysville High School's website shows that Farnsworth and Valko remain in their positions.

The March 20 complaint comes while a federal action Jahn's father filed is pending before the 6th Circuit. Hafeli says the school district and administrators have "changed their story" several times in those federal proceedings.

"They said they tried to help him by handling this internally," Hafeli said. "Basically they're just taking the position that they did things right."

Neither the superintendent nor the administrators have returned requests for comment.

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