Parents’ suit says school district’s failure to address bullying led to student’s suicide

The parents of a student who committed suicide by hanging in a bathroom at his elementary school have filed suit in a Texas federal district court against Lewisville Independent School District (LISD), says Courthouse News Service. The suit charges that LISD  failed to keep the student safe from harm, and was deliberately indifferent to complaints that he was being bullied. The student’s mother says that shortly before her son killed himself she sent a letter to the principal, “complaining about the fact [that her son] had been, and continued to be, a victim of incessant bullying by other children,” and also complained of it to the school board.

The parents say that Montana Lance’s suicide at Stewart Elementary School on Jan. 20, 2010 was not his “first suicidal gesture, and in fact, just a few days before, he told a school counselor that he wanted to kill himself.” About a week before he made that threat, Deborah Lance says she sent the letter to Principal Lea Land complaining about the incessant bullying.   The Lances say the Lewisville Independent School District gave only “lip service” to its bullying and harassment policies, providing only very general discussion of these issues in the student handbook, unlike “many school boards across the country … [that] made anti-bullying campaigns an integral part of that school district’s practices and customs.” Montana began to be bullied by other children in the second grade, and was called “gay” because he suffered from a lisp, his parents say. Other students were told not to sit with him or they would be “sitting at the gay table,” according to the complaint.

The Lances claim that in February 2008 the school psychologist found Montana to be “at risk,” and “clinically significant” after “he wrote that he felt like life was getting worse and worse, that other kids hate him, that his classmates make fun of him, that he heard voices in his head, and that he hates himself.”  The psychologist found that he satisfied criteria as a child with an “Emotional Disturbance” and could receive special services from the school, but the designation was not formally accepted by the school district until Nov. 1, 2009, the parents say. The Lances bring a number of claims against the school district, including violation of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 1983 claims alleging violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, and state tort claims such as wrongful death.  They say, “The acts and omissions of the school district personnel, including and especially the nurse, created the danger which caused the injuries to Montana.” They seek punitive damages, court costs, and attorney’s fees.

Source: Courthouse News Service, 1/28/11, By Jamie Ross

[Editor's Note; The legal complaint is available at the first link below. In January 2011 the Scranton Times-Tribune reported that the parents of a South Scranton Intermediate School student had filed a federal lawsuit against the school district, school officials and the parents of students who allegedly bullied their daughter while she was suffering from a medical condition. The suit claims school officials “chose to be passive observers, and worse, actual conspirators in the cruel, relentless and unlawful abuse.” A summary of the article is available at the second link below.

For an analysis of court decisions addressing school official liability under the "state-created danger" exception to qualified immunity, COSA members may access the paper by Karla Schultz and  Dorcas Ann Green at the third link below.  In it, the attorneys look at cases like Scruggs v. Meriden Bd. of Educ., 2007 WL 2318851 (D. Conn. 2007), in which the court found that, despite the ongoing bullying, neither the school district nor school officials had “affirmatively placed [the student] in harm’s way  to the extent required” of a state-created danger claim, and were entitled to qualified immunity for claims arising from the student’s suicide. ]

Legal complaint

NSBA Legal Clips archives on Scranton bullying suit

Section 1983 and State ­Created Danger Theory: How Big is the “Snake Pit of Liability” for School Districts?

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