Court Backs Vice Principal in Suit Over Student’s Suicide

By Mark Walsh — June 03, 2009 2 min read
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A vice principal and a school district were not liable in the death of a middle school student who committed suicide the day he was sternly reprimanded for leaving school to protest anti-immigration policies, a federal appeals court has ruled.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, ruled unanimously that vice principal Gene Bennett and the Ontario-Montclair school district in California could not be held legally responsible in the 2006 death of 14-year-old Antony Soltero.

Soltero, an 8th-grader at De Anza Middle School, joined two or three other students from the school in walking out of school to join protests set for nearby schools of then-pending federal legislation that would have made it harder to assist undocumented immigrants.

The other protests had largely fizzled, and the De Anza students went home. Two days later, principal Bennett met with the students and sternly warned them about the legal consequences of truancy--that they faced fines, a trip to juvenile hall, and the loss of year-end school privileges such as a trip to Disneyland.

Soltero, who was on juvenile probation for bringing a knife to school, was found at home with a self-inflicted gunshot wound and died later that evening. He left a suicide note critical of Bennett.

Soltero’s family sued the vice principal and the district on various federal and state grounds, including violations of the boy’s civil rights and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

A federal district court granted summary judgment, and in its June 1 opinion in Corales v. Bennett, the 9th Circuit court affirmed. It issued a lengthy opinion that examines in detail such issues as the First Amendment free speech rights surrounding student walkouts, the validity of school truancy laws, and the propriety of stern school discipline.

The vice principal’s lecture to the students who walked out, “while perhaps unduly harsh, was not extreme and outrageous,” the court said.

“Under these circumstances, a decision by this court that exposes an administrator to liability for sternly warning students of the consequences of their continued actions would severely handicap his or her ability to set children back on the correct path,” the decision said. “This is especially true during the critical middle school years.”

The court also held that the discipline did not amount to retaliation for First Amendment expression (in the form of the walkout) because the vice principal was applying the school’s basic rule against truancy.

And the court held that the vice principal’s harsh lecture was not the “proximate cause” of the 8th-grader’s death.

“Anthony attended classes after his meeting with Bennett, spoke with [a fellow student] and his mother, and wrote a detailed suicide note before committing suicide,” the court said. “Thus, the record seems to show he had the opportunity to appreciate the nature of his actions.”

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.