Carol Wyke could hardly believe what the dean of students at McLaughlin Middle School was telling her. She had come to the Polk County school in Lake Wales, Florida, to collect the personal belongings of her 13-year-old son, Shawn, who a month before, on October 17, 1989, had hanged himself from a tree in the front yard of his home. Now, the dean, a man named James Bryan, was telling her that Shawn had tried to kill himself in a school restroom the day before his death. This was news to Wyke. Bryan had learned of the suicide attempt from the mother of one of Shawn’s friends, he told her. He’d handled the incident himself, calling Shawn into his office, where he read passages to him from the Bible. Afterward, Bryan sent the boy on his way without alerting his mother, or anyone else, to the fact that he was suicidal.
Shocked and outraged that no one from the school had contacted her, Wyke filed a federal lawsuit as well as a negligence claim under a state law that requires school officials to treat students with “reasonable care.” She sought $2 million in damages. “My life was over when Shawn died,” she told Teacher Magazine in the fall of 1994, just months before the case was scheduled for trial.
In seeking retribution from the district for Shawn’s death, Wyke’s suit raised a key legal question with far-reaching implications: Can a school be held liable for the suicide of a student, even if that student takes his or her life miles from the school itself?
“You have a certain responsibility to children while in charge,” Dabney Conner, attorney for the Polk County school board, acknowledged at the time of the litigation, “but it can’t be 24 hours a day.” Wyke, though, contended that her son would still be alive if someone from the school had notified her about his suicide attempt. “This was a cry for help,” Clay Rood, Wyke’s attorney, said. “That cry was ignored.”
Although a U.S. district judge dismissed the federal lawsuit against the district, she allowed the state case to go forward, and a jury returned a verdict in Wyke’s favor, awarding her $165,000. On appeal, the 11th Circuit Court upheld both the judge’s action and the jurors’ ruling. “We do not believe (and neither did the jury) that a prudent person would have needed a crystal ball to see that Shawn needed help and that if he didn’t get it soon, he might attempt suicide again,” the appeals panel said in its ruling.
With the court decision, the 76,000-student Polk County school system moved to make local educators more aware about how to respond to despairing students. At the time of Shawn’s death, the district had an intervention plan—educators who thought a student was considering suicide were to quickly contact a mental health professional in the school and keep the child under supervision but not all educators knew of it, says Linda Troupe, Polk’s supervisor of preventive health and psychological services. So school officials produced an 18-minute video that made clear that suicide threats should be taken seriously. “Now there is no doubt in anyone’s mind—teachers, administrators, or whomever—what to do when a child threatens suicide,” Troupe says.
Ten years ago, when Shawn died, school personnel were not nearly as focused on crisis intervention as they are today, Troupe says. She attributes the new awareness to recent school shootings and other widely reported acts of school violence. “We had policies in the past,” she says, “but it was like, ‘This is never going to happen to me.’”