School’s Liability for a Student’s Suicide

Officials who hear of a student’s suicide threat may be liable for the minor’s later suicide.

Church Law and Tax 1997-07-01

Personal Injuries-on Church Property or During Church Activities

Key Point. School or church officials who receive a report of a minors suicide threat may or may not be liable for the minors later suicide, depending on how they respond to this information.

• An Illinois court ruled that a school was not legally responsible for the suicide of a student, despite the fact that it was aware of a suicide threat made by the student. The facts of this case are tragic, but instructive. A high school student told other students that he was going to kill himself. He also wrote a suicide note. Several students reported the victims intentions to a school counselor. The counselor questioned the victim, but took no action other than to call the victims mother and suggest that she take her son to a hospital for drug overdose treatment. The counselor did not inform the mother of the victims suicide threats. The mother picked her son up from school, and while driving him to a hospital he jumped from the car and later leapt off a highway overpass, killing himself. The mother later sued the school, claiming that it was responsible for her sons death by failing to exercise reasonable care for his safety. She insisted that the school should have called an ambulance or other medical personnel, informed her of his threat to commit suicide, and implemented a suicide prevention program. A state appeals court rejected the mothers lawsuit. The court concluded that teachers and school officials who serve in loco parentis (in the place of the parents) are immune from liability under Illinois law for their ordinary negligence. They may be legally responsible only for their willful and wanton misconduct. The court ruled that the acts of the school or its counselor did not satisfy this standard:

The suicide of a teenage is tragic. School counselors and other school personnel should take every suicide threat seriously and take every precaution to protect the child. If [the counselor] had failed to take any action upon learning of [the victims] statements, her inaction could constitute willful and wanton conduct. However, the [lawsuit] admits that [the counselor] contacted [the mother] and advised her to take [her son] to the hospital, albeit for a drug overdose. While the nondisclosure of [the victims] suicide threats, if proven, could well constitute negligence, the [mother] has failed to allege sufficient facts that would support a finding that either [the counselor] or any other school official acted with [willful or wanton misconduct].

Application. This case addresses a difficult question-the potential legal liability of school officials for the suicide of a student. The court reached a number of conclusions that will be useful to church leaders, whether or not they operate a private school: (1) In many states, teachers are considered to be in loco parentis , meaning that they serve temporarily in the place of a students parents. This ordinarily means that they cannot be legally responsible for injuries to a student unless they engage in willful and wanton misconduct. Obviously, this is a difficult standard to prove. Persons who serve as teachers in church schools may benefit from this rule. Other church workers may as well, to the extent that they satisfy their states definition of in loco parentis. (2) Church or school staff members who do not serve in loco parentis may be responsible for a childs death or injury on the basis of ordinary negligence-a much easier standard to prove. (3) The court concluded that “doing nothing” in response to a suicide threat constitutes willful and wanton misconduct which exposes teachers to liability. The court noted that the counselor took sufficient steps in response to the victims suicide threat to avoid liability based on willful and wanton misconduct. However, the court noted that the counselors failure to advise the victims mother of the suicide threat was negligent. While this was not sufficient to impose liability on the counselor, it would have been enough to impose liability on a person not meeting the definition of in loco parentis. Grant v. Board of Trustees, 676 N.E.2d 705 (Ill. App. 1997). [Legal Liability for Student Injuries]

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