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Judge ponders lawsuit over teen’s hanging

Defense asks for suit to be dismissed

POSTED: July 13, 2008 5:01 a.m.
Lawyers for a Gainesville special-needs school where a troubled teen hanged himself in 2004 say his parents have no grounds to sue under a federal law.

The attorney representing the parents of 13-year-old Jonathan King said the case is important to the futures of "countless other severely behaviorally disordered children across the state" and what policies will be in place to protect them from themselves and others.

A Hall County Superior Court judge will decide if the civil case goes forward after hearing a motion for summary judgment Wednesday from an attorney for Pioneer Regional Educational Service Agency, or RESA, and Alpine Psychoeducational Program, the Athens Street facility where King hanged himself in a seclusion room for unruly students in November 2004.

The teen used a rope that was given to him by a school official earlier in the day to keep his pants up.

Attorney Phil Hartley, representing Pioneer RESA, asked Chief Judge C. Andrew Fuller to dismiss the suit on the grounds it does not meet the requirements of a specific federal civil rights law.

Don and Tina King sued Pioneer RESA, a 12-county entity that oversees the Alpine program and other special-needs schools, under a federal law that permits people to sue state government employees and others acting "under color of state law" for constitutional law violations. The law is commonly used in police brutality claims.

The Kings’ attorney, Wyc Orr, told Fuller in a lengthy oral argument that Pioneer RESA and the Alpine program’s failure to properly train employees in how to deal with suicidal students represented "a constitutionally infirm set of policies, practices and customs, and it cost Jonathan King his life."

Hartley, representing the school, said the Kings failed to show that policymakers knew of a risk of a constitutional violation and were "deliberately indifferent."

"They cannot point to the actions of anybody, much less Pioneer RESA, that shock the conscience of the court," Hartley said.

Hartley said that courts have repeatedly held that under the law, schools have no special "custodial relationship" with students in which they have a constitutional duty to protect them from themselves or others.

Only prisoners, arrestees and those who are involuntarily committed could sue on those grounds, Hartley said.

Hartley said that from 1976 until King’s death, there had been no suicides at the facility.

"No record exists that this is a chronic kind of problem that everyone would be on notice about," Hartley said.

Orr countered that "some 10 times a year there would be some mention of suicide," at the Alpine Psychoeducational Program.

Orr said the teen previously mentioned or expressed thoughts of suicide to school officials, but "the word did not pass back down" to the teacher aids who placed him in seclusion the day he hanged himself.

"He went into a seclusion room with a rope they gave him," Orr said. The suicide, he said, "happened because of their deliberate indifference to a known risk of suicide by Jonathan King."

Hartley said case law upholds his client’s position that they cannot be sued under the federal law.

"We have similar facts happen, unfortunately, all across the country, and the parents want to blame someone," Hartley said. "The courts have been clear, there is no right (to sue)."

Fuller has already dismissed the Georgia Department of Education from the suit.

Fuller, with the teen’s parents looking on from the plaintiff’s table, said the case represented "a very tragic set of facts," but that he must consider the law, and the "narrow interpretation of when you can pursue a claim" in making his decision.

"I’ll give great attention to the law," the judge said.

Fuller said he would try to rule soon after receiving final briefs from the parties.



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