Are Schools Liable When Bullied Teens Commit Suicide?

An estimated 16 percent of high school students have considered, planned, or attempted suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Unfortunately, many teens who contemplate or commit suicide are victims of bullying by their peers.

In 2007, Stephen Patton, 13, ended his own life with a single gunshot to the head. As reported by USA Today, the teen’s suicide may have been the result of relentless bullying by his classmates.

Sheila Patton said she was unaware her son was being bullied. However, she later learned several officials at Allen Central Middle School knew Stephen was being bullied and did nothing to prevent the harassment.

School officials deny having any knowledge that Stephen was being bullied, or that he was contemplating suicide. However, at least two former Allen Central Middle School students provided sworn affidavits to the contrary.

Former student Phyllis Smith said Stephen was often harassed about a speech impediment. According to Smith, several teachers were present while the teen was being harassed. Unfortunately, they did nothing to stop the bullying.

Smith said she was also a victim of bullying at Allen Central Middle School. In her affidavit, the former student said teacher Patricia Handshoe knew about the harassment, but the reported bullies were never punished.

Zach Shepherd, who also attended Allen Central Middle School, said he and two others told Principal Davida Bickford that Stephen Patton was being bullied. As stated in Shepherd’s sworn affidavit, the principal reportedly ignored their complaints.

As she was unaware Stephen was being bullied, Sheila Patton blames school officials for failing to prevent the teen’s suicide. In her opinion, the school is legally responsible for her son’s death.

Sheila originally filed her lawsuit in the Floyd County Circuit Court. However, Judge John David Caudill dismissed the case citing qualified immunity.

Essentially, Judge Caudill determined that the teen’s suicide was “an intervening act,” which school officials “couldn’t reasonably be expected to foresee.” Caudill’s decision was challenged before the The Kentucky Court of Appeals and the court upheld the original ruling.

The Kentucky Supreme Court is now being asked to reinstate the lawsuit. It is unclear whether the court will determine that schools can be held liable when bullied teens commit suicide. However, Sheila Patton believes school officials are responsible for her son’s death.

Bullying is a devastating reality for many students and their families. Unfortunately, teens who are bullied are up to “nine times more likely to consider suicide than nonvictims.”

Although it is too late for Stephen Patton, Sheila her lawsuit will prevent similar tragedies in the future.

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