Kentucky Supreme Court: Are Schools Liable in Student Suicides?

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Stephen Patton, an eighth-grader at Allen Central Middle School in Eastern Kentucky, was abused, taunted, and bullied because of his size and his stutter. On Nov. 7, 2007, Stephen committed suicide. Now, after eight years, Stephen’s mother is suing on behalf of her son and the Kentucky Supreme Court will hear arguments this week on whether schools can be held liable for failing to stop bullying that leads to a student’s suicide, reports The (Louisville, KY) Courier-Journal’s Andrew Wolfson.

Stephen’s mother, Shiela Patton, says that four teachers, two school superintendents, and Principal Davida Bickford knew that her son was being bullied on a daily basis, but took no action to stop the abuse. The defendants say they knew nothing about the bullying and could not have known that Stephen would take his life, especially when his own mother and friends were totally surprised by the suicide, as well. Though two lower courts have found the defendants were not responsible, the Supreme Court will judge whether to try the case again – a case with possible major consequences.

Executive Director Wayne Young of the Kentucky Association of School Administrators, which represents 3,000 educators, says it would be unjust to hold teachers and administrators responsible for something that, more often than not, no one sees coming. But Mrs. Patton has two student witnesses who saw Stephen being bullied in front of teachers. There are also students who will testify that Stephen made statements concerning his plan to commit suicide that can be directly attributed to bullying.

Patton’s lawyer, Vanessa Cantley, stated in an email that if the estate prevails in the jury trial, any proceeds will be used to start a foundation in Stephen’s memory to offer schools anti-bullying education and training. In a nationally representative sample from the CDC, of students in grades 9 to 12, it was found that 15.8% had seriously considered attempting suicide in the past 12 months; 12.8% had made a suicide plan; 7.8% had attempted suicide in the past 12 months; and 2.4% reported they had made a suicide attempt that resulted in injury, poisoning or overdose that required medical attention.

Principal Bethany Shaw of Frankfort Community High School in West Frankfort, Illinois explains that cases like Stephen’s have forced her school to create proactive measures to prevent bullying, according to KFVS-TV reporter Giacomo Luca.

“What I feel is bullying may not be the same as what you feel is bullying,” Shaw said. “If it impacts you and keeps you from coming to school and doing the things that you want to do, then that’s something that needs to be addressed.”

A few years ago, a student athlete who attended Frankfort Community High School took his own life. The event has made students and staff increasingly more aware of watching for students who may be troubled. One example of this is that school staff is alert to harassment online, even online activity that might be going on outside of school. Principal Shaw pointed out the importance of disseminating information from the school concerning resources in the community, as well as eliciting help from the schools’ guidance counselors.

Shaw added that keeping an open line of communication among students, teachers, and parents will go far to head-off these incidents before they become tragedies.