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Education department says it's not responsible for teen's suicide

13-year-old hung himself at Gainesville psychoeducational school

POSTED: December 17, 2007 5:02 a.m.

The Georgia Department of Education should not be held liable for the death of a 13-year-old boy who used a rope to hang himself at a Gainesville school for emotionally disturbed children, a lawyer argued Wednesday in Hall County Superior Court.

The state agency is one of three defendants named in a wrongful death suit filed by the parents of 13-year-old Jonathan King, who committed suicide in a seclusion room at the Alpine Psychoeducational Program in November 2004. The school and Pioneer Regional Educational Service Agency are also defendants in the litigation, which seeks unspecified real and punitive damages.

Jennifer Dalton, a lawyer for the state department of education, told Chief Judge C. Andrew Fuller that the agency should be dismissed as a defendant in the suit under sovereign immunity law. Sovereign immunity prevents government agencies from being sued, but it can be waived if certain exceptions apply.

Attorneys for Donald and Tina King argued that the Department of Education failed in its duty to carry out a directive from the Georgia Board of Education that said the agency "shall develop procedures and regulations pertaining to the operation of psychoeducational programs."

Plaintiffs’ attorney Wyc Orr interpreted that directive to mean the state Department of Education should have developed specific rules on how seclusion rooms were used.

Jonathan King was locked in the dark, 8-foot-by-8-foot room for disciplinary purposes. Earlier in the day, school employees gave him a piece of rope to keep his pants up, Orr said. King, who in the previous month wrapped the hem of his jacket around his neck and expressed suicidal ideas, used the rope to hang himself, Orr said.

"The Department of Education had no policy in place to help protect against this," Orr said. "They knew better and yet did nothing to protect Jonathan King. Now they’re washing their hands of these seclusion rooms, saying they’re not their responsibility."

Dalton said the state board’s directive was not meant to cover every aspect of how a psychoeducational program was run.

"There is no expectation that the Department of Education would dictate how an individual program uses its seclusion room," Dalton said.

She said the agency didn’t have enough employees to police the use of seclusion rooms by all 24 psychoeducational facilities in Georgia, and that the department chose to leave certain disciplinary policies up to local school administrators.

"The Department of Education does not go in and say, ‘You’re not using that seclusion room properly,’" Dalton said. "We also don’t enact the rules on what books to buy, or pencils, or what color to paint the classrooms. There are some decisions that are made at the local level."

Orr said the death had not altered the agency’s stance on seclusion rooms.

"Even after the suicide by hanging of Jonathan King, a very tragic event, nothing has changed," he said.

Fuller did not rule on the motion to dismiss the Georgia Department of Education during Wednesday’s hearing, but questions he posed to both parties hinted that he may find in the agency’s favor.

Fuller called the State Board of Education directive cited by the plaintiffs "a very, very broad rule."

No court date has been set for the lawsuit.



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