Apparently, the 17-year-old student was bullied nearly constantly while at school. The allegations are quite upsetting, claiming that he was pushed down stairs, spit on, struck, and verbally harassed.
The student had Asperger’s syndrome, an autism-spectrum disorder which is characterized by severe social anxiety. The bullying appeared to have been motivated, at least in part, by the student’s mental disability, which made it quite difficult for him to fit in among his peers.
Suing schools over bullying is a relatively new phenomenon. This is partly because the severe psychological damage that bullying can cause has not always been well-understood. What would have once been written off as “boys being boys” is now a cause for serious concern, given the effects it can have on a child’s short-term safety, and how they function as a member of society in the long term.
With that in mind, it seems perfectly reasonable to hold schools responsible when they fail to do anything to mitigate bullying or harassment. Still, the notion of suing for wrongful death in the case of suicide does raise some interesting legal issues.
Generally, when suing someone for wrongful death, or any other form of negligence, the plaintiff has to show that the negligent conduct of the defendant was the proximate cause of the harm suffered by the defendant. “Proximate cause” essentially means that the causal chain is not so long and attenuated that there was no way for the defendant to have foreseen that its conduct would have such consequences.
When a person dies by their own hand, no matter how clear their motivations were, some people are very uncomfortable with holding a third party legally responsible for that person’s death. “After all,” they might say “that person made an affirmative choice to commit suicide.”
This argument is tempting, but it doesn’t really hold water. It’s well known that severe depression, and other forms of distress, can weigh so heavily on a person that they truly feel like suicide is the only option. Some people can be pushed to a point where suicide, without intervention, is all but inevitable.
Accordingly, if the allegations against the school are correct (that they knew about the bullying and did little or nothing to stop it), and a student commits suicide because of the bullying (and it can be proven that bullying was, in fact, the main cause), the school can and should be held liable.
Remember, schools serve in locus parentis, (in the place of the parents). From a legal standpoint, schools, while the students are in their custody, have all of the same responsibilities as parents. And it should go without saying that parents have a duty to keep their children safe, to the extent possible.
Of course, schools can’t, and are not required, to ensure that everyone on school property is 100% safe 100% of the time. They are, however, responsible for taking reasonable steps to bring the risks that students face when the walk through the school doors down to an acceptable level.
Given all we know about bullying, and the effects it can have on a person, taking an aggressive, zero-tolerance approach to the problem seems like a perfectly reasonable step.
By: Rusty Shackleford