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Florida District Held Partially Responsible For Student's Suicide

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A U.S. District Court in Tampa last week ruled that a Florida school district was partly responsible for the 1989 suicide of a 13-year-old student.

The decision marks the first time a school district has been found negligent in a case involving a student's suicide, and legal observers say the decision could precipitate an avalanche of liability claims against school systems.

School counselors, though not named in the suit, are concerned that such a ruling will leave them vulnerable to legal claims if a student commits suicide. (See Education Week, 4/20/94.)

In Carol Wyke v. The Polk County School Board, the jury found the district guilty under a state law that requires school officials to supervise and protect students with "reasonable care." They awarded Carol Wyke, the student's mother, $165,000 in damages. The jurors could have awarded Ms. Wyke $500,000, but they reduced the amount, saying that the student's mother and a family friend were, in part, responsible.

'Victory for the Children'

In her complaint, Ms. Wyke charged that the county board, the principal, and an assistant principal at McLaughlin Junior High School in Polk County, Fla., knew about Shawn Wyke's suicidal condition before the boy hanged himself.

Ms. Wyke testified at the trial that school officials were told that Shawn had tried to hang himself in the school's restroom the day before he died. She alleged that a school official counseled Shawn by reading Bible passages to him but did not tell her about her son's suicide attempt.

Shawn hanged himself from a tree in the backyard of his home in Lake Wales, Fla., the next day.

Clay B. Rood, the lawyer handling Ms. Wyke's case, said his client felt vindicated by the decision.

"It's a great victory for the children of this country because school boards will see this as a message that they will be held liable if their employees are not adequately trained," he said.

While the jury found in favor of Ms. Wyke on the negligence claim, U.S. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Jenkins rejected the plaintiff's contention that the board violated her civil rights guaranteed by the due-process and equal-protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution.

Still, the ruling is worrisome to some educators who say schools ultimately cannot be held responsible for a child's actions.

The Polk County school board will meet this week to decide whether to appeal.

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