On a fall afternoon nearly five years ago, 13-year-old Shawn Wyke hanged himself from an oak tree in the backyard of his Lake Wales, Fla., home.
Soon after, his mother filed a federal lawsuit against the local school board and some staff members at her son’s junior high school, alleging that they had been negligent in Shawn’s suicide and deprived him of his constitutional rights.
Carol Wyke blames several McLaughlin Junior High School officials for her son’s death.
Many people in the education community point to the case of Carol Wyke v. The Polk County School Board as evidence of a trend to blame school officials, particularly counselors and psychologists, when a student kills himself.
And though no school employee has ever been found guilty of negligence or malpractice in a case involving a student’s suicide, experts say, Ms. Wyke’s suit is worrisome for counselors.
‘He Was Just Confused’
In the Wyke case, Shawn’s mother alleges that school officials were told that her son had tried to hang himself a day earlier in a restroom at school. According to Ms. Wyke, another student discovered Shawn in the restroom, and the other boy’s mother called a school administrator later that day after learning of the incident.
The following day, Ms. Wyke said, the principal called Shawn into his office and told him that suicide was against “the Lord’s will’’ but did not call her or refer the boy to a psychiatric hospital.
However, officials from the Polk County, Fla., junior high school say that they were not told of Shawn’s suicide attempt in the restroom and that they did not talk to the 6th grader the day before his death in October 1989.
In her lawsuit seeking $2 million in damages, Ms. Wyke charges the county board, the school principal, and the assistant principal with failing to inform her of Shawn’s apparent suicidal condition. Ms. Wyke’s lawyer is seeking to add other officials, including the school counselor, to the complaint.
Their actions, according to Ms. Wyke’s complaint, constitute a deprivation of her and her son’s civil rights guaranteed by the due-process and equal-protection clauses of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The case is expected to go to trial this summer in U.S. District Court in Tampa, Fla.
“Shawn was an all-American boy. He was just confused and needed someone to talk to,’' said Clay B. Rood, the lawyer who is handling Ms. Wyke’s case. “His death could’ve been prevented.’'
Mr. Rood maintained that if the school officials had disseminated information on a “timely basis,’' Shawn would still be alive.
In light of the rising suicide rate among young people in the United States and a 1991 ruling by Maryland’s highest court that could influence other court decisions across the country, school psychologists and counselors fear that they may face increasing liability if a student at their school commits suicide.
The suicide rate among 10- to 14-year-olds increased by 75 percent from 1979 to 1988, according to the most recent figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The rate for 15- to 19-year-olds jumped 35 percent during the same period, the C.D.C. reports.
Distraught parents have, in the past, charged school districts with negligence in student suicides.
But not until the 1991 decision in the Maryland case of Stephen Eisel v. The Board of Education of Montgomery County had any court found that school counselors had a duty to intervene to attempt to prevent a student’s threatened suicide.
In its ruling in the Eisel case, the Maryland Court of Appeals--the state’s top court--found that “considering the growth of this tragic social problem ... we hold that school counselors have a duty to use reasonable means to attempt to prevent a suicide when they are on notice of a child’s or adolescent’s suicidal intent.’'
The case involved Nicole Eisel, a middle school student from Kensington, Md., who died in 1988 in an apparent suicide pact with her best friend. Her father, Stephen Eisel, filed suit against the schools, charging that counselors had failed to stop Nicole from killing herself.
Last month, a lower court found that the school system and the two guidance counselors named in the suit were not liable for damages.
But in its ruling on the case, the Maryland high court set a new standard that could lead to school officials in the state being held liable in future cases and could influence rulings in other states.
The Wyke case in Florida, meanwhile, furthers a trend in which plaintiffs are seeking to hold public schools responsible for alleged federal constitutional violations against students, such as sexual abuse by teachers.
Some federal courts have rejected the theory that school officials have a constitutional “duty to protect’’ students in their schools. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled last month that students do have a “substantive’’ due-process right under the 14th Amendment to be free from sexual abuse by school employees. (See Education Week, March 16, 1994.)
Most school psychologists, who generally are required to complete at least three years of graduate school, are taught that timely notification of a parent or guardian is responsible professional behavior when a student seems suicidal.
However, said Robert H. Pate Jr., a professor of counselor education at the University of Virginia, counselors and psychologists should not be expected to be “mind readers or clairvoyants’’ in order to perform their duties.
“Most [school psychologists] are concerned that if a child comes in and is vaguely upset, that they should have to predict behavior,’' he said.
The size of the school population can also make it difficult to monitor the needs of each student, said Kevin P. Dwyer, the assistant executive director of the National Association of School Psychologists. A single psychologist, working in several schools, may serve an average of 2,800 students, he noted.
When it comes to defending themselves against lawsuits, school districts generally are more legally sophisticated than individual school counselors or psychologists, Mr. Dwyer said.
But school psychologists and counselors may be becoming more savvy. In the past five years, experts in the field note, a growing number of them have purchased personal malpractice insurance to augment the coverage they receive under district policies.
“There is a growing consensus among school-based psychologists that your own independent insurance is a good thing,’' said David P. Prasse, a practicing school psychologist and the director of the graduate program in school psychology at Governors State University near Chicago.
For example, Lynda B. Troupe, the supervisor of psychological services for the Polk County, Fla., schools, said she spends about $200 a year for her own malpractice insurance.
Leaders in the field are also trying to keep their members informed about appropriate actions to shield themselves from legal action.
“School systems should have a policy that if a counselor or teacher or anyone else in the school knows directly of a threatened student suicide, they should notify the parents,’' Mr. Pate said.
Schools can protect themselves by developing “child-sensitive procedures’’ for dealing with potential suicides, according to a policy developed by the school psychologists’ group.
If a student is suicidal, a psychologist should stay with him until a parent arrives, be prepared to make psychiatric referrals, and accompany the student, if necessary, to a crisis center, Mr. Dwyer said.
No Apparent Motive
In the Florida case, Shawn Wyke’s motives for killing himself are unknown. The 6th grader left no note. By all accounts, he was not involved in drugs or alcohol. In local news reports that appeared after his death, friends and classmates described him as “polite,’' “athletic,’' and “popular.’'
“The child didn’t manifest any of the classic symptoms,’' Ms. Troupe of the Polk County schools said. “If we had been able to do anything different, we would have.’'
“We had no prior knowledge that this would happen. No one did,’' echoed Max Linton, the former principal of McLaughlin Junior High who now heads a nearby high school. “It was tragic.’'
Steve Selph, the lawyer for the county schools, said the plaintiffs have yet to find any evidence that the school’s counselor knew about Shawn’s suicide attempt.
The larger question the court will grapple with is whether counselors have a legal duty to intervene.
Mr. Selph said he will argue that school officials “naturally want to help’’ if a student wants to harm himself. Yet, whether they have a legal duty to come to a student’s aid is another matter, he said. “Some people make the argument that schools should take care of children from the time they wake up to the time they go to bed at night,’' Mr. Selph said. “But we can’t be absolute insurers of every child.’'
Ms. Troupe agreed. She said the demands of her job as the school system’s mental-health coordinator are often so great that she feels she can “barely keep her head above water.’' Now, she fears that even her best efforts may not be enough, she said.
“Even if you suspect a child is suicidal, and you follow the school board policy, there is always a feeling that your actions might come back to haunt you,’' she said.
A version of this article appeared in the April 20, 1994 edition of Education Week as Fla. Suit Blames School Officials in Pupil’s Suicide