How to Handle School Tragedy

By Edwin C. Darden

When a student commits suicide, the proper response by school officials is to offer compassion for the family, public condolences in the media, and psychological support for grieving friends and faculty.

The other district reaction happens quietly and well out of sight. It is a practical step that might at first appear cruel, but for the greater good is an unfortunate necessity: It’s time to dial up the school attorney.

In the blink of an eye, a family’s grief can turn to anger, which morphs into blame. At that point, the school system looms as a convenient target for retribution for their loss.

The legal hook commonly proceeds in one of three ways:

• Something must have been happening at school to motivate the student to commit suicide.

• School officials should have noticed unusual behavior and notified the parents so they could do something about it.

• If the district had been more careful and watched the child more closely, this could have been avoided.

Three cases below illustrate different sorts of legal developments related to student suicide. Two involve parents blaming the school district, while the third explores the impact on a school employee. Only one case has been decided, and that was in favor of the district. 

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