Posts tagged with "suicide"

On the Use of Metal Detectors at Public Schools

On July 21, 2012, 15-year-old Keijahnae Robinson was sitting on her aunt’s front porch with friends after attending a Sweet Sixteen birthday party. She was looking forward to her own celebration, which was a week away. Unfortunately, she became the thirteenth homicide in Bridgeport this year after two gunmen “sprayed the… porch she was on, striking her in the head and wounding her two friends.”[1] The family’s planned beach party for Keijahnae “became hushed preparations for her funeral and burial.”[2] While Keijahnae’s murder prompted widespread discussion regarding juvenile curfews in the city,[3] one response that has received less attention was the decision by the Bridgeport Board of Education to install metal detectors and “implement other provisions” at several schools, with the aim of avoiding future tragedies.[4]

What prompts any given school district to utilize metal detectors varies, though it unsurprisingly it is almost always linked to acts of violence on or off school grounds. For example, personnel in Hartford public schools use handheld metal detectors “[i]n view of the escalating presence of weapons in America’s schools today.”[5] The shooting suicide of a 13-year-old student at Stillwater Junior High School (in Oklahoma) late last month has administration admitting, “The metal detector question is something we’ll talk about pretty quickly.”[6] In Bridgeport, it was the off-campus shooting death of a young girl aspiring to be the next Mariah Carey.[7]

Public opinion of the use of metal detectors in schools is naturally divided. Bridgeport parents and students were “very grateful that the school has undertaken these extra measures of security.”[8] Others question the effectiveness of detecting weapons,[9] cite insufficient data to decide either way,[10] or argue safety isn’t the real issue.[11]

However, what is of greatest import to schools is the legality of metal detector use, which at this point in time is on their side. The Connecticut Association of Boards of Education (CABE) appears to have provided its endorsement, noting that Fourth Amendment restrictions on searches and seizures still apply. As one member of CABE stated, “A school needs justifiable reasoning for implementing them such as a pattern of weapons.”[12] Courts will uphold the employment of metal detectors by school districts as a means to screen students for contraband or weapons that pose a risk of harm to the student body. Deemed a minimally intrusive search, “[t]he courts have allowed schools to use this method in order to ensure weapons are excluded from the school environment.”[13]

Students do not fully surrender their constitutional protections while at school, and as such it is important, as a parent, to understand and appreciate your child’s rights. If you believe that your child was subject to an impermissible search by school officials, it is imperative that you consult with an experienced school law practitioner. Should you have any questions regarding school searches or other education law matters, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya, Esq. He may be reached at Maya Murphy, P.C., 266 Post Road East, Westport, Connecticut (located in Fairfield County), by telephone at (203) 221-3100, or by email at JMaya@mayalaw.com.

Written by Lindsay E. Raber, Esq.


[1] “Bridgeport girl, shot after Sweet 16 party, dies,” by Stacy Davis and Michael P. Mayko. Published July 21, 2012. Accessed October 5, 2012: http://www.ctpost.com/news/article/Bridgeport-girl-shot-after-Sweet-16-party-dies-3725251.php

[2] Id.

[3] See, e.g., “Relatives of shooting victim call for curfew,” by Stacy Davis. Published July 24, 2012. Accessed October 5, 2012: http://www.ctpost.com/news/article/Relatives-of-shooting-victim-call-for-curfew-3729055.php

[4] “Spike In Violence Prompts Bridgeport To Install Metal Detectors,” by Tikeyah Whittle. Published Spetember 11, 2012. Accessed October 5, 2012: http://www.ctnewsjunkie.com/ctnj.php/archives/entry/spike_in_violence_prompts_bridgeport_school_to_install_metal_detectors/

[5] “Hartford Public School Board of Education Policies and Regulations.” Accessed October 5, 2012: http://www.noahwebstermicrosociety.org/Board%20of%20Ed%20Rules%20Reg.pdf

[6] “Oklahoma teen suicide mourned,” by Christine Roberts. Published September 27, 2012. Accessed October 5, 2012: http://articles.nydailynews.com/2012-09-27/news/34131892_1_memorial-service-metal-detectors-prayer-service

[7] See Footnote 1.

[8] See Footnote 4.

[9] “Expert: Metal detectors aren’t guarantee,” by Brian Troutman. Published September 17, 2012. Accessed October 5, 2012: http://www.abc2news.com/dpp/news/education/expert-metal-detectors-arent-guarantee

[10] “Impacts of Metal Detector Use in Schools: Insights From 15 Years of Research,” by Abigail Hankin, Marci Hertz, and Thomas Simon. Journal of School Health, Vol. 81, No.2 pp.100-106. Accessed October 5, 2012: http://www.edweek.org/media/hankin-02security.pdf

[11] “The issue isn’t ‘safety,’ it’s guns,” by Lori K. Brown. Published September 19, 2012. Accessed October 5, 2012: http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2012-09-19/news/bs-ed-schools-guns-20120919_1_gun-owners-school-gun-incidents-metal-detectors

[12] See Footnote 4.

[13] “Advocating on Your Child’s Behalf: A Parent’s Guide to Connecticut School Law,” by Joseph C. Maya, Esq., pp.62.

“Do Not Let Your Self-Worth Be Defined By Bullies”

“Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.” This was the “farewell message” of Tyler Clementi, an eighteen-year-old Rutgers University student, posted on Facebook after he discovered his roommate was spying on his sexual encounters with another man.

It almost goes without saying that bullying (and its technological brother, cyberbullying) is one of the most important topics of school law today. National surveys and studies conducted over the past several decades, along with the high-profile suicides of Clementi, Phoebe Prince, and Megan Meier, have provided startling information on the prevalence of bullying tactics both in person and through Internet channels of communication. Indeed, “70 percent of middle and high school students have experienced bullying at some point,” with approximately 5 to 15 percent described as “chronic victims.”[1] Unfortunately, less than half actually report such incidents, and the short- and long-term effects on victims can be particularly devastating, such as depression, anxiety, poor health, and decreased academic performance and school participation.

How the nation has reacted has been as diverse as its population.[2] Efforts in Connecticut have been particularly extensive and comprehensive (as discussed here), though many States still find themselves unwilling, for whatever reason, to extend protections to particularly vulnerable groups of students, such as LGBT. Particularly shocking is the prevalence of laws specifically written to stigmatize LGBT students, mandating negative portrayal by the very faculty and staff we’d expect would protect students regardless of their differences.[3]

Courts appear more and more willing to subject school administrators, Boards of Education, and even towns to liability for the harms brought upon students at the hands of their peers. (See, for example, my two previous posts from today, here and here.) In the case of Tyler Clementi, however, the parents elected not to pursue litigation against the school or Tyler’s roommate because “[t]he family got to a place where they really felt an obligation and desire to use the publicity for positive purposes.”[4] Tyler’s roommate, Dharun Ravi, was convicted earlier this year of crimes related to the spying incidents,[5] though the seemingly lenient sentence has been widely called into question.[6]

If you personally or, if a parent, your child has been subject to bullying in school or on the Internet, it is imperative that you take to heart the message of Jennifer Livingston, a TV journalist thrust into the spotlight this past week regarding a viewer’s bullying of her weight:

To all the children out there who feel lost, who are struggling with your weight, with the color of your skin, your sexual preference, your disability, even the acne on your face. Listen to me right now. Do not let your self-worth be defined by bullies. Learn from my experience that the cruel words of one are nothing compared to the shouts of many.[7]

Should you have any questions regarding school bullying or any other education law matter, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya, Esq. He may be reached at Maya Murphy, P.C., 266 Post Road East, Westport, Connecticut (located in Fairfield County), by telephone at (203) 221-3100, or by email at JMaya@mayalaw.com.

Written by Lindsay E. Raber, Esq.


[1]“Bullying: A Module for Teachers,” by Sandra Graham, PhD, of the American Psychological Association. Accessed September 24, 2012: www.apa.org/education/k12/bullying.aspx

[2] See, for example, the following info-graphic: http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:School_bullying_laws_in_the_United_States.svg&page=1

[3] See, for example, “States with Safe School Laws,” by GLSEN. Accessed October 8, 2012: http://www.glsen.org/cgi-bin/iowa/all/library/record/2344.html

[4] “Tyler Clementi’s family decides not to sue,” by Dominique Debucquoy-Dodley. Published October 6, 2012. Accessed October 8, 2012: http://www.cnn.com/2012/10/05/justice/new-jersey-tyler-clementi-lawsuit/index.html

[5] “Dharun Ravi apologizes for ‘childish choices,’ plans to head to jail,” by Logan Burruss. Published May 30, 2012. Accessed October 8, 2012: http://www.cnn.com/2012/05/29/justice/new-jersey-ravi-sentence/index.html

[6] See, for example, “Is 30-day sentence fair for student who bullied gay roommate?” by the CNN “This Just In” blog. Published May 21, 2012. Accessed October 8, 2012: http://news.blogs.cnn.com/2012/05/21/is-30-day-sentence-fair-for-student-who-bullied-gay-roommate/

[7] “Star brother Ron Livingston defends ‘fat’ anchor sister, Jennifer,” by News Limited Network. Published October 5, 2012. Accessed October 8, 2012: http://www.news.com.au/entertainment/celebrity/tv-anchor-jennifer-livingston-takes-on-bully-who-criticised-her-weight/story-e6frfmqi-1226488835303

Material Issues Surrounding Circumstances of Student’s Suicide

On November 4, 2003, Terence Leary, a Wesleyan University (Wesleyan) student and pitcher on the school’s baseball team,[1] called the campus public safety officers complaining about a panic attack he was experiencing. Although Terence was transported by the officers to a nearby hospital, they simply dropped him off and departed “without further investigating or securing medical attention for him.” Soon thereafter, Terence left the hospital because he “couldn’t take it”[2] and committed suicide by drowning in a nearby creek. His death “sent ripples across the campus.”[3]

Terence’s family elected to sue Wesleyan under a negligence theory, arguing that the school “(1) hired and retained inadequate safety personnel; (2) failed to properly train its security personnel; and (3) did not follow appropriate measures for handling distressed students.”[4] It further alleged:

[T]he security personnel (1) knew or should have known that Terence Leary was in a distressed condition, had suicidal tendencies and was a threat to himself, and they failed to investigate or provide Leary with adequate care; (2) failed to make sure Terence Leary received adequate treatment at the hospital; and (3) the university failed to conduct a proper investigation into Leary’s mental history.[5]

Wesleyan filed a motion for summary judgment, seeking dismissal of the lawsuit. It countered that Terence’s death was caused by his own negligent actions; thus, they were not liable. It further contended that it owed no duty to Terence because the law does not recognize a special relationship between a university and its students.

Connecticut law does not recognize a general duty to protect others from harming themselves, unless there is a special relationship between the two parties. A “duty arises particularly in special relationships where the plaintiff is typically in some respect particularly vulnerable and dependent upon the defendant who, correspondingly, holds considerable power over the plaintiff’s welfare.”[6] Thus, a threshold inquiry is whether one party had custody or control of the other party.

In this case, the Court found that the public safety officers, as agents of Wesleyan, had custody or control of Terence, because their “status as police officers created the perception that they controlled the situation.”[7] As such, they had the ability to prevent Terence from leaving the hospital prior to receiving medical attention. The Court went to great length describing liability for “gratuitously undertaking to render services to another… [which is] based on the control that the individual has in the circumstances, and the power he assumes over the plaintiff’s welfare.”[8] A person will be liable for negligent performance of this undertaking[9] because “one [who] takes charge and control of [a] situation… is regarded as entering into a relation which is attenuated with responsibility.”[10] The Court further noted the great extent to which Wesleyan provided emergency services and information to its student body, and found that the officer’s actions actually increased the risk of harm to Terence.[11]

Finally, the Court determined that Terence’s suicide was foreseeable, even though he had not previously made any threats on the night of his death or beforehand. Based on the transcript of Terence’s emergency phone call, a security expert for the plaintiff testified that “[Wesleyan’s] public safety officials should have recognized that [Terence] was in a mental crisis and could have been harmful to himself,” but failed to follow the provisions of Wesleyan’s own public policy manual that specifically addresses how to handle student mental health crises.[12] As the Court further noted, these policies “provided evidence that the defendant was aware that suicide was a general risk, when dealing with an individual who was in mental distress.”[13] Thus, the motion for summary judgment was denied as to the negligence claim because of genuine issues of material fact related to control and custody of Terence and his mental distress when he placed the emergency call.

Increasingly, we are seeing Connecticut courts willing to hold elementary and secondary schools as well as colleges and universities responsible for tortious or negligent acts committed against students. If you personally or, if a parent, your child was the victim of an assault or other occurrence while under the supervision of school personnel, it is important that you seek an experienced school law practitioner to understand your rights and courses of action. Should you have any questions regarding negligence liability or any education law matter, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya, Esq. He may be reached at Maya Murphy, P.C., 266 Post Road East, Westport, Connecticut (located in Fairfield County), by telephone at (203) 221-3100, or by email at JMaya@mayalaw.com.

Written by Lindsay E. Raber, Esq.


[1] “Friends, family unite to share memories of Leary,” by Miriam Gottfried. Published November 14, 2003. Accessed October 8, 2012: http://wesleyanargus.com/2003/11/14/friends-family-unite-to-share-memories-of-leary/

[2] “Student’s death stuns Wesleyan community,” by Miriam Gottfried. Published November 7, 2003. Accessed October 8, 2012: http://wesleyanargus.com/2003/11/07/student%E2%80%99s-death-stuns-wesleyan-community/

[3] Id.

[4] Douglas Leary v. Wesleyan University, 2009 Conn. Super. LEXIS 621 at 2.

[5] Id.

[6] Coville v. Liberty Mutual Insurance Company, 57 Conn. App. 275, 281 (2000).

[7] Leary, supra at 12-13.

[8] Id. at 17-18, citing McClure v. Fairfield University, Superior Court, judicial district of Waterbury, Docket No. CV 000159028 (June 19, 2003, Gallagher, J.) (35 Conn. L. Rptr. 169, 2003 Conn. Super. LEXIS 1778)

[9] Coville, supra 57 Conn. App. 281.

[10] McClure, supra, 35 Conn. L. Rptr. 169, 2003 Conn. Super. LEXIS 1778.

[11] Leary, supra, at 22-23.

[12] Id. at 27.

[13] Id. at 33.

Negligence Claims Against School Following Son’s Suicide

Plaintiff’s Negligence Claims Against School Following Son’s Suicide Survive Motion to Strike, Proceeds Further Into Litigation

Michael Girard was a senior at Putnam High School during the 2005-2006 academic year when his guidance counselor learned that he was suicidal and/or had threatened to kill himself. However, the counselor took no action to aid Michael despite a conversation with him about the threat, and simply let him leave for home by himself. Michael also “expressed an intention to harm or kill himself in the presence of employees and agents of the High School, Board of Education, and Town” while on school grounds during school hours. Once again, no official action was taken by any of these individuals.

On March 23, 2006, Michael committed suicide by methadone toxicity.

At the time of Michael’s death, Putnam schools had a Suicide Prevention Policy (policy) in effect in the district. It set forth “detailed guidelines” on actions for staff to take when confronted with a scenario such as Michael’s. It required “immediate notification of emergency personnel or school psychologist or social worker,” and stated, “Under no circumstances is a student allowed to go home. The student must be released only to a parent, guardian, or other responsible adult.”

In light of this policy, Michael’s parents filed a negligence lawsuit against the Town of Putnam, Board of Education, and various school employees, including the guidance counselor (collectively “defendants”). However, the defendants submitted a motion to strike, challenging the legal sufficiency of the amended complaint’s allegations. They argued on two fronts:

  • “The act of suicide is a deliberate and intentional act” absolving the defendants from liability. In other words, because Michael’s death was an unforeseeable, intentional tort, the defendants were could not be sued for negligence.
  • The defendants also claimed governmental immunity protection, pursuant to Connecticut General Statutes §§ 52-557n and 52-557n(b)(6). “[M]unicipalities and its employees may be exposed to liability for acts of negligence unless the function involved the exercise of discretion,” and there is no immunity for ministerial acts (exercise of judgment and discretion not allowed). In essence, the defendants argued that whether to follow the policy was “a discretionary function.”

The Superior Court of Connecticut, Judicial District of Windham at Putnam denied the motion to strike as to these claims. It noted that while “suicide generally is an unforeseeable result that serves to preclude liability,” it does not automatically “break the chain of causation if it was a foreseeable result of the defendant’s tortious act.” In this case, the Court determined that Michael’s suicide “could be a foreseeable result of school staff’s failure to follow the suicide prevention policy.” As further explained:

It is foreseeable that if a person declares an intent to commit suicide, suicide is a foreseeable risk if nothing is done. Indeed, it was the written policy of the Putnam High School to immediately safeguard a student and obtain emergency medical or professional assessment and counseling for such a student in that circumstance. That is a clear cut warning of the need to take action. It creates a foreseeable harm as a consequence of a failure to act. No reasonable staff member could have concluded otherwise…

In addition, the Court was not persuaded by the defendants’ second argument. “[T]he Suicide Prevention Policy, by its terms, resolved that staff members are not qualified to assess whether someone is suicidal and it forbids discretion or delay in sending a student, who threatens suicide, to someone who is qualified to make the assessment.” When a staff member faces a situation like Michael’s, they must “follow their own mandatory procedures after a ministerial duty was triggered.” Therefore, the governmental immunity protection was inapplicable.

Ultimately, the Court granted the motion to strike as to intentional infliction of emotional distress claims (as to the parents), but permitted the negligence claims related to Michael’s death to proceed further into litigation. “The plaintiff has alleged sufficient facts to show that the defendants committed negligent acts that increased the risk of accomplishment of a suicide by [Michael], and that their negligence was a substantial factor in causing that harm.”

Jury selection and the start of the trial are scheduled to begin at 9:30am on October 16, 2012. The case is Estate of Michael Girard et al. v. Town of Putnam et al., CV-08-5002754-S.

Written by Lindsay E. Raber, Esq.

Should you have any questions about school liability or other education law matters, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya, Esq. He may be reached at Maya Murphy, P.C., 266 Post Road East, Westport, Connecticut (located in Fairfield County), by telephone at (203) 221-3100, or by email at JMaya@mayalaw.com.