Casting Blame

By David Hill — November 01, 1994 21 min read

On the afternoon of Ott. 16, 1989, Jonathan Morton, an 8th grade student at McLaughlin Middle School in the central Florida town of Lake Wales, was hurrying to catch the bus when he heard a noise coming from the boys’ bathroom. He went inside to investigate and found a friend, 13-year-old Shawn Wyke, in the process of tying his football jersey to the rail above one of the stall doors. “I asked him what he was doing,’' Jonathan testified in a deposition taken in 1993, “and he started arguing with me and stuff, and I kind of, you know, let him have it because I caught on to what he was doing.’'

Jonathan sensed that Shawn was planning to hang himself from the rail, but at first he couldn’t tell if his friend was joking or not. After all, Jonathan and his buddies had played suicide games before. Sometimes they would cut their wrists with razor blades until they drew blood, making it look like they had tried to do themselves in. “In a way,’' Jonathan said, “it was kind of cool, but a lot of people would have said, ‘That’s stupid.’ We used to put ‘666' on our hands and write ‘Ozzie’ across our knuckles and all types of childish stuff.’'

But Shawn Wyke didn’t go for those kinds of games, Jonathan testified; for one thing, he was a churchgoer. So on that fall afternoon in 1989, Jonathan decided that his friend wasn’t kidding around.

“I could tell something was up because of the way he was acting,’' Jonathan said. “He was acting kind of weird. That’s why I got rude with him....I started letting him know in no uncertain terms, ‘Get your butt down.’ ''

Eventually, Shawn complied. But Jonathan had a bus to catch. “I saw [Shawn] going toward the door,’' he said, “but I was going to be late, so I ran.’'

Jonathan made it to the bus, but he couldn’t stop thinking about what he had seen in the bathroom. So when he got home, he told his mother about it. Brenda Morton asked her son if he had informed anyone at school about Shawn. He hadn’t. “And I said, ‘Well, let me call the school, and I will see what we can work out because somebody needs to know what’s going on,’ '' Morton recalled later. “So I called the school, and I got the secretary, and I asked to speak to the school disciplinarian. I told [the secretary] that I needed to talk to someone in charge because there was a problem that my son had brought to my attention when he came home. I didn’t tell her what the problem was.’'

The secretary put the call through to an administrator, who listened as Morton explained what her son had told her. (Later, when she gave her deposition, Morton identified that administrator as James Bryan, who was the school’s dean of students.) “He responded that he would take care of it,’' Morton recalled.

Morton assumed the man she spoke with would call Shawn’s mother--but that never happened. Carol Wyke didn’t hear about the incident in the boys’ bathroom until several weeks later, but by then it was too late. On the evening of Oct. 17, Shawn Wyke was found hanging by his neck from an oak tree in the yard of his home, about 15 miles outside of Lake Wales. No note was discovered, but following an autopsy the next day, Shawn’s death was ruled a suicide.

Carol Wyke now blames the school district for her son’s death. She contends that Shawn would still be alive today if someone from the school had notified her about his apparent suicidal condition, so she is suing the Polk County School Board for negligence and for the violation of her civil rights. Her lawsuit, filed in federal court in Tampa, seeks $2 million in damages.

“This was so easily preventable,’' says Wyke’s lawyer, Clay Rood.

The school district’s written response to the lawsuit is a straightforward denial of the allegations: “Defendants deny that the death of Shawn Wyke was a suicide, but was an accident. They further deny that they had knowledge of Shawn Wyke’s alleged attempted suicide on Oct. 16, 1989, until after Shawn Wyke’s death had occurred.’'

The case, which could go to trial before the year ends, is part of a trend: An increasing number of parents and students are suing public schools, particularly for alleged civil and constitutional rights violations. To some, such lawsuits are nothing but a nuisance, with taxpayers ultimately paying the price. But to others, these cases raise legitimate questions about the rights of parents and students and the responsibilities of schools.

A jury will have to decide if Wyke’s lawsuit has any merit, but the question remains: Can a school be found liable for the suicide of a student, even if that student takes his or her life miles from the school itself? Nearly five years after her son’s death, Carol Wyke, 37, sits at a conference table in Clay Rood’s Tampa office. A heavyset woman with short-cropped blond hair, painted-on eyebrows, and a curious scar across her left cheek, Wyke, who now lives in a Tampa suburb, is wearing a large black brace on her right forearm. When asked about it, she explains that she burned her arm in July 1993 at the dry cleaning shop where she was working. Since then, she has been unemployed and collecting workers’ compensation. “When my arm gets better,’' she says, “then I’ll go back to work.’'

Rood, a personal-injury lawyer whose youthful picture can be seen in his full-page advertisement that graces the back covers of both volumes of the Tampa Yellow Pages, has longish brown hair and a slight southern drawl. On the table in front of him are two large boxes full of depositions and documents pertaining to his client’s case. Another box sits on the floor. Rood chews on a stick of gum as he listens to Wyke recount the events leading up to Shawn’s death.

Fighting back tears, Wyke explains that she and her son moved from Pittsburgh to Lake Wales--a small town of 9,000 located about 60 miles east of Tampa--in 1987, after she had begun dating a man named Billy Schmidt. “I couldn’t take the cold no more,’' she says, “so we came to Florida.’' (Wyke was never married to Shawn’s father.)

They moved in with Schmidt’s mother, Helen, who lived in a rural area east of town. Several months later, however, Billy Schmidt moved back to Pittsburgh, leaving Carol and Shawn behind with his mother. Unorthodox as it was, the arrangement seemed to work; Carol Wyke and Helen Schmidt became good friends, and Shawn and his mother both began referring to the older woman as “Grandma Schmidt.’'

Shawn, whom Wyke describes as “very outgoing, friendly,’' apparently had little trouble adjusting to his new surroundings. “He could pick up a friend anywhere,’' she says. “He’d do anything for anybody. He liked helping people, talking to people. He was the type of kid you’d like to take home.’' For 5th grade, Shawn attended a private Lutheran school, where, according to Wyke, he made “straight A’s, honor roll.’' But the school didn’t go any higher than 5th grade, so Shawn enrolled at McLaughlin Middle School for 6th grade. Although Shawn’s grades had slipped to B’s and C’s before his death, Wyke says her son didn’t exhibit any of the familiar warning signs common to suicidal teenagers, such as depression, lethargy, or changes in eating or sleeping patterns. “None of that,’' she says.

But something was bothering Shawn. “It’s obvious that he was depressed about his family situation,’' Rood interjects. “He didn’t have a family like a lot of kids have, with a mother and a father and brothers and sisters.’'

Two weeks before Shawn killed himself, his mother moved out of Helen Schmidt’s house and into the Hotel Grand, a once-majestic stucco tower put up in downtown Lake Wales in the 1920s. By 1989, however, much of the downtown area had fallen on hard times, and the Hotel Grand had been converted into a residence hotel. (The dilapidated building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, now sits empty.) Wyke, who didn’t have a car, says she needed to be within walking distance of the Cumberland Farms convenience store, where she worked as a clerk on the graveyard shift, from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.

Wyke wanted her son to move in with her, but Shawn didn’t like the idea. He couldn’t see moving from a nice house in the country, with a big yard and a treehouse, to a cramped apartment in town. So Helen Schmidt agreed to take care of Shawn, and Wyke promised to come out to the house at least every other day. “I knew he was in good hands,’' Wyke says. “I knew Mrs. Schmidt wouldn’t hurt him or anything like that. She treated him as if he were her own child.’' Still, Wyke made it clear to Shawn that the arrangement was only temporary. “I told him that he’d have to [eventually] come because I’m his mother.’'

Wyke admits that she and Schmidt sometimes disagreed over how to raise Shawn. “Grandma Schmidt would say, ‘He can do this,’ and I would say, ‘No, he can’t do this,’ '' Wyke recalls.

But apparently the problems were more serious than that. In her deposition, Joyce Schmidt, Helen Schmidt’s daughter-in-law, described a tug of war between Wyke and Schmidt, with Shawn caught in the middle. “Carol felt that my mother-in-law was trying to take over,’' she testified, “and that’s her personality. I mean, that’s the kind of person she is, and it was her home....Carol felt like she was losing control of him to Helen, and I think that bothered her. Well, I know it bothered her, but she also knew that Helen was encouraging Shawn to do the right things.’' Joyce Schmidt described Wyke’s relationship with her son as “volatile--I mean physical, not to mention verbal.’' Shawn, she said, “would slam doors, and I don’t know what else, but I know he slammed a door so hard that the trim popped off. You know, things like that. There was shoving, and so there was physical contact, too.’'

Asked if she knew of anything that was seriously troubling Shawn in the months before he took his life, Joyce Schmidt replied: “Oh, the possibility of living with his mother. He did not want to leave Helen’s house....He made it very clear. That was what one of the fights was over....He felt secure where he was. It was stable, and he had finally been in one place [for a while]. He knew there were people there to supervise him, that kind of thing.’'

Joyce Schmidt further testified that her mother-in-law had made an appointment to take Shawn to see a mental health counselor in nearby Winter Haven, about 25 miles away, but that he killed himself before it was to happen. About a month after her son’s death, Carol Wyke and a friend, Linda Keaton, went to McLaughlin Middle School to pick up the items from Shawn’s locker. The two women were ushered into the office of an administrator, whom they believed to be assistant principal James Butler but who they now say was James Bryan, the school’s dean of students. They say they asked Bryan if he had any clues as to why Shawn took his own life.

According to Wyke and Keaton, Bryan said he had known about Shawn’s suicide attempt in the bathroom and that he had called Shawn into his office the next day to talk about it.

“Carol kind of froze stiff,’' Keaton later testified. “Both of us did. It kind of shocked the both of us to hear this....Carol said, ‘He tried to commit suicide in the boys’ bathroom?’ And then she said, ‘What did you do?’ And upon that, he reached down underneath the desk...and pulled out a Bible, and he flipped it open on the desk and continued playing with his ring. And all of a sudden he looked up at her and he says, ‘I tell them and I tell them and I tell them and I tell them.’ '' Keaton and Wyke took this to mean that Bryan had quoted from the Bible to Shawn and other troubled students. “I was in a state of shock,’' Wyke says. “For the life of me, I sat there and listened to everything this man said to us, and I was in shock. I couldn’t move. It was like I was glued to the chair, and I had to listen to him.’'

Keaton, too, couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She asked Bryan if he had really counseled Shawn the day after the incident in the bathroom. “He didn’t answer,’' she testified. “But the sweat just started pouring off him, and he continued twisting the ring....He put his hands on his forehead, and he said, ‘I’m not at blame. My conscience is clear.’ ''

Wyke recalls Bryan’s telling them “that he did what he could do to help Shawn at the time because his hands were tied....And I asked him why he didn’t call an ambulance, or call me, and he just said, ‘There was too much red tape.’ '' “I was furious,’' she says. “I was livid....He pulled out the Bible and wanted us to pray, me and Linda, while we were there. He said, ‘Let’s gather and have a moment of silence,’ and he pulled out his Bible, and I just looked at him and shook my head. He said, ‘It’s not going to bring him back, but we can still pray.’ ''

She pauses for a moment, then adds: “My impression of him is, he’s sick.’'

Bryan, who now teaches at a state center for juvenile offenders in nearby Bartow, won’t comment on the case. But last year, when a reporter asked him if he had known of Shawn’s alleged suicide attempt but had failed to call Carol Wyke, he replied: “Do you really believe professionals would do that? Let’s go back to where the fault really lies here. Look at his home life....Where was the mother when all this was going on?’'

As for the meeting with Wyke and Keaton, Bryan’s memory was hazy when asked about it during a 1993 deposition: Q. Do you ever recall talking to [Shawn’s] mother?

A. I’ve thought a lot about that. I remember a conversation with two ladies after the, you know, the tragedy, and I believe it was his mother and I believe it was the lady he was staying with. . . .

Q. You think that was in the office?

A. And it was in my office, and I think it was them. If you want me to sit here and bet my life on it, then I will have to say no, I’ve never seen them.

Q. So all you remember is at some time you talked to two women in your office, and you think one of them was the mother of a student?

A. One of them would have been the mother of a student.

Q. But you are not sure if it was Mrs. Wyke?

A. No....My better judgment says it was them, but to sit here and just tell you to your face, “Yes, that was them,’' I can’t do that. . . . Later, Bryan was asked if he knew about Shawn’s attempted suicide in the boys’ bathroom: A. I never had a chance to sit down with that boy, never had a chance to get to know him really well, and I certainly, absolutely emphatically, never knew he was suicidal. And I still don’t believe he committed suicide. I still think it was an accident. Asked if he kept a Bible in his office, Bryan was defensive: A. What does that have to do with anything?

Q. Well, it may have something to do with this.

A. Well, I’m a Christian. I’ve brought a Bible to school to read, yes, on my own time....Sometimes on Friday I [brought] it because I taught Sunday school...and if I caught some free time, I would study my lesson. I used my time wisely that way, didn’t I? Bryan was then asked if he ever used the Bible when counseling students or parents: A. If a person was really distraught, and they asked me where an answer lies, then I would answer--if I had my Bible--from the Bible. If they were distraught, and they asked me where the ultimate answer lies, I would have quoted the Bible to them. Yes sir, I would have. But then, they would have asked me, wouldn’t they? I wouldn’t have volunteered it. The school system doesn’t allow me to volunteer the Bible.

Q. Do you recall doing that in this conversation with these two people that you talked to after Shawn’s death?

A. I will guarantee you if they were talking about Shawn’s death, I would have done it. Do I recall it? No. But I know I would have. Is that fair enough? Bryan’s testimony could be crucial to the outcome of Wyke’s lawsuit. But at the time the suit was filed, in October 1991, Wyke was still under the impression that she had spoken with James Butler, not James Bryan, when she and Linda Keaton went to McLaughlin Middle School. Because of that, the suit names Butler, former principal Max Linton, and several other Polk County school officials--but not James Bryan. In 1993, the federal court in Tampa rejected Clay Rood’s attempt to add Bryan’s name to the suit. That decision is currently being reviewed by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. Following the court’s ruling, Wyke’s lawsuit will be scheduled for trial back in Tampa--with or without James Bryan as a defendant.

Dabney Conner, the lawyer who is representing the Polk County School Board in the case, doesn’t like talking about lawsuits that are in litigation (and, for the record, he doesn’t like lawyers who advertise), so he reveals few clues as to how he plans to contest Wyke’s action at trial. But he makes it clear that he intends to capitalize on the mother’s case of mistaken identity. “It seems to me,’' Conner says, “her biggest problem was identifying the person with whom she spoke. She was vague on that, and quite frankly I think she was confused. I don’t think that she really knows the person.’'

Asked if he intends to settle the lawsuit before it goes to trial, Conner replies, “Possibly.’'

Max Linton, now principal of nearby Frostproof Middle-Senior High School, says he doesn’t recall seeing Wyke and Keaton at McLaughlin Middle School. “And that thing in the bathroom,’' he adds, “as far as I know, it didn’t happen. I can’t imagine it happening in a middle school, with adolescents, and everybody not knowing about it.’'

Nonetheless, Linton offers a tidbit of information that seems to support Wyke and Keaton’s contention that it was in fact Bryan, not Butler, whom they spoke with at the school. “I don’t think Mr. Butler even owns a Bible,’' Linton says. “It was very uncharacteristic of him. I had never seen Mr. Bryan with a Bible, although he was much more open with his faith. He was religious. He went to the Baptist Church and was involved with the anti-abortion, pro-life type of deal. But I never saw or heard him giving testimony to any students.’'

Linton stops short of calling Wyke a liar, but he thinks he knows what lies behind her lawsuit: “I think her motivation is money.’' Carol Wyke’s case is unusual, but not unique. In 1988, the bodies of two 13-year-old girls were found in a Wheaton, Md., park. Investigators said Marsha Urevich shot Nicole Eisel in the head and then took her own life with a .32-caliber pistol taken from Marsha’s house. Friends told police that the two girls were fascinated by the occult and that they had formed a suicide pact.

Stephen Eisel, Nicole’s father, claimed that school officials were “on notice’’ about his daughter because one of her friends had told a school counselor about the planned suicide several weeks before the girls died. Eisel sued the Montgomery County schools for $1 million, contending that the district and two school counselors were negligent in failing to intervene in his daughter’s death. The school district denied the accusations and further argued that even if the counselors had known about Nicole’s plans, they were under no legal duty to notify a parent. When the district sought to have the suit dismissed on those grounds, the Circuit Court for Montgomery County, Md., agreed.

But the Maryland Court of Appeals, the state’s top court, later reversed that decision. In a unanimous ruling, the court asserted that “school counselors have a duty to use reasonable means to attempt to prevent a suicide when they are on notice of a child or adolescent student’s suicidal intent.’' The school district had argued that elements of confidentiality and discretion in the counselors’ relationships with students would be destroyed by the imposition of such a duty, but the court rejected that notion, citing the district’s own guidelines to counselors, which state: “Don’t worry about breaking a confidence if someone reveals suicidal plans to you. You may have to betray a secret to save a life.’'

The court concluded: “When the risk of death to a child is balanced against the burden sought to be imposed on the counselors, the scales tip overwhelmingly in favor of duty....Eisel claims only that a telephone call, communicating information known to the counselors, would have discharged that duty here. We agree.’'

The ruling allowed Eisel to take his case back to the circuit court. During the trial last March, counselor Dierdre Morgan testified that Nicole’s friend said only that Nicole was “very upset’’ and never mentioned suicide. JoAnn Robertson, the lawyer who represented the school counselors, asked in her opening statement, “Does it make sense that they would not call [Eisel] if they knew one of the girls had a gun and planned to kill themselves?’'

After about three hours of deliberation, a six-member jury ruled in favor of the school district. But under the new standard established by the appellate court, Maryland school officials could be held liable in future cases. “I don’t see how someone could read that case and come away saying that counselors don’t have a duty to report a student’s suicidal intentions to the parents,’' says Robert Pate, a professor of counselor education at the University of Virginia. “The debate has been settled.’'

It’s hard to imagine that a school official wouldn’t immediately contact a student’s parents if that student were suspected of being suicidal or indeed if the student had actually attempted suicide at school. “I think that’s just human nature, common sense,’' says Dabney Conner, the lawyer for the Polk County schools. “It would take an awfully callous or indifferent person not to do the right thing, the human thing.’' Max Linton agrees: “Any school person who hears of an attempted suicide, I mean, it’s a red light. Something flashes. You don’t just ignore such threats.’'

In fact, it is the written policy of many districts to notify a parent or guardian if a student is known to be suicidal. Clay Rood contends that the Polk County schools did not have such a policy in place. “Everyone was left to do what they thought best in these particular situations,’' he says, “which is obviously a dangerous [procedure].’' Conner responds: “I do not believe that we violated or failed to implement anything that the state requires.’'

It’s one thing for a student to tell a teacher or a counselor that he or she is suicidal. But what if a student’s cries for help are more subtle? Should school counselors be expected to pick up on those signs? If a student does in fact seem suicidal, is the counselor or psychologist obligated to report that information to the student’s parents?

“Counselors,’' Pate says, “should not be called on to be clairvoyants or predictors.’' For example, if a student tells a counselor, “I wish I’d never been born,’' the statement may not necessarily be a sign of suicidal intent, and the counselor would probably not be expected to contact a parent. Nonetheless, the appellate court’s ruling in the Eisel case makes the point that any hint of suicide should be taken seriously. “It may be,’' the judges wrote, “that the risk of any particular suicide is remote if statistically quantified in relation to all of the reports of suicidal talk that are received by school counselors. We do not know. But the consequence of the risk is so great that even a relatively remote possibility of a suicide may be enough to establish duty.’'

Pate admits that parents should expect to be notified if their son or daughter makes an explicit statement about suicide. But should schools be held liable for what happens away from the school itself? Where does the parents’ responsibility end and the school’s begin?

“You have a certain responsibility to children while in charge,’' Conner argues, “but it can’t be 24 hours a day.’'

The danger, of course, is that--in the same way that many teachers are now afraid of touching students for fear of being sued for sexual misconduct--counselors and psychologists will become less likely to get involved in their students’ affairs as legal claims against schools proliferate. “There’s a lot of paranoia among educators these days,’' Max Linton says. “We talk about it all the time in faculty meetings. Anybody can sue anybody for anything; you’re just so susceptible. In every situation, you have to ask, ‘What’s my liability here?’ '' In fact, many psychologists and counselors now purchase their own liability insurance to augment the coverage they receive from their school districts.

Pate, who teaches a course in the legal and ethical aspects of counseling, tells his students: “You can be sued at any time, but you need to be sure you have carried out your job in a professional manner.’' After Shawn’s death, Carol Wyke--having been granted a leave from her job at the Cumberland Farms store--took her son’s ashes back to Pittsburgh for interment. But when she returned to Lake Wales, the store had hired someone else to take her place. Wyke didn’t care, though. “My life was over when Shawn died,’' she says.

For a time, Wyke even considered killing herself. “I couldn’t handle it no more,’' she says, “so I was going to drive and wreck my car. But thank God I didn’t.’'

Some of Shawn’s friends planted a tree in his name at a park where he used to play football. Wyke was asked to attend, but she declined. “I was mad at the time,’' she says. “I was mad at everybody. I was mad at Shawn for the longest time.’' Eventually, Wyke left Lake Wales behind and moved to Tampa. She doesn’t go back to Lake Wales much anymore, even though she still has friends in the area. “It’s too creepy,’' she says.

Now, Wyke reserves her strongest hatred for the man she says could have prevented her son from taking his own life: James Bryan. “I’m not gonna lie to you,’' she says. “I do hate that man.’'

In Clay Rood’s office, amid all the depositions and papers pertaining to Wyke’s lawsuit, is a 1989-1990 McLaughlin Middle School yearbook. There on page 53 is a photograph of Shawn Wyke, with the words “May 28, 1976-October 17, 1989'’ underneath. The photo shows Shawn to be a good-looking kid, with large, friendly eyes and a warm smile. He’s wearing his football jersey. Next to the picture is the full text from Psalm 121: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. . . .’'

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 1994 edition of Teacher as Casting Blame