Friday, November 6, 2009

Opinion/Commentary: Georgia Court of Appeals Finds School not Liable for Hanging Death

November 6, 2009
By Jennifer Searcy
Founder/Director of Public Policy & Affairs
The Coalition for Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports

On November 15, 2004, Johnathan King hung himself with a macramé belt in a locked "time out room" while a student at the Pioneer Regional Education Service Agency.

Johnathan's parents filed a lawsuit against the GA Dept of Education and Pioneer RESA, alleging that Johnathan's rights were violated when the school failed to keep him safe while in confinement. Pioneer contended they were "not responsible or negligent in any way" and had no "affirmative duty" to prevent Johnathan's suicide.

A Hall County Superior Court judge dismissed the lawsuit, but suggested that school employees acted with negligence.

The Kings then filed an appeal.

On November 5, 2009, the GA Court of Appeals heard the case of KING v. PIONEER REGIONAL EDUCATIONAL SERVICE AGENCY and confirmed that Pioneer RESA was not liable in the Jonathan King case.

One reason the school was found not liable for his hanging death while in a "time out room" was because the two paraprofessionals working with him that day (one was a substitute) were not told of his multiple prior suicide threats, some made while in seclusion just 2 weeks before. Alpine psychologists and other staff members knew of these threats, yet did not inform those parapros; therefore, the Court reasoned that the parapros were not "deliberately indifferent" - just "uninformed" - so could not have violated Johnathan's "due process rights."

An argument could have been (and should have been) made that Alpine was "deliberately indifferent" by not informing staff who had been assigned to Johnathan of his previous suicide threats - threats he'd made while in seclusion.

The Court also did not appear to have addressed how Johnathan's could have committed suicide in the first place, as a paraprofessional was assigned to keep an eye on him through a window in the "time out room's" door. Supposedly the child's hanging occurred out of the parapro's line of site...

Perhaps if his previous threats of suicide had been taken more seriously, perhaps if staff had taken possession of the macrame belt, perhaps if those assigned to him had paid more attention while they were standing outside his door and actually took the time to look through the window and notice he was tying that belt around his neck and stringing himself up - perhaps THEN Johnathan would be alive today.

Yet the school is not liable for his death...

Below is a partial transcript. The full text can be found here:

Here, there is no evidence that the two Alpine employees who were responsible for putting Jonathan in the time-out room (Trotter and Jackson) on the day that he committed suicide acted with deliberate indifference. Both Trotter, who was working only his second day as a substitute paraprofessional at Alpine, and Jackson testified that they were not made aware by other staff that Jonathan had ever threatened to harm himself and did not know of any reason why he would do so. In fact, the Kings acknowledge that neither Jackson nor Trotter had been made aware of the alleged suicidal threats that Jonathan had made while confined to the time-out room a few weeks prior to his death. Thus, in sending Jonathan to the time-out room, neither Trotter nor Jackson deliberately disregarded a strong likelihood that Jonathan would harm himself. See id. at 955 (III).

Accordingly, even if we were to conclude that Jonathan's confinement created an affirmative duty for Pioneer RESA to protect him from harming himself, the Kings
have not demonstrated that the two school officials actually responsible for that confinement deprived Jonathan of his substantive due process rights.

(b) Pioneer RESA was not responsible for Jonathan's suicide. The Kings also contend that Pioneer RESA's conduct, policies, and employee training procedures demonstrated a deliberate indifference to its duty to protect Jonathan from harming himself. This contention is without merit. As discussed in Division 1 (a), the Kings have failed to show that Jonathan was deprived of his right to substantive due process by any school officials. Without an underlying violation of Jonathan's constitutional rights, Pioneer RESA cannot be liable on the ground that its conduct, policies, or training procedures caused a constitutional violation. See Collins, supra, 503 U. S. at 120 (I); City of Los Angeles v. Heller;[ 27 ] Gish, supra, 516 F3d at 955 (III). Accordingly, the trial court did not err in granting summary judgment to Pioneer RESA as to the Kings' claims under 42 USC § 1983.

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