The Georgia Court of Appeals has upheld a Hall County judge’s decision to throw out a lawsuit against a special-needs school where a 13-year-old boy hanged himself in a "time-out" room.
In an order issued this month, one member of the three-judge panel wrote that the boy’s parents had not shown the school was "deliberately indifferent" to possible warning signs that he was suicidal.
Don and Tina King, the parents of Jonathan King, sued Alpine Psychoeducational Program and its supervisory agency,
Pioneer Regional Educational Service Agency, claiming their son’s constitutional rights were violated when he died in a seclusion room in November 2004.
Jonathan King hanged himself with a macrame rope that a school staff member gave him earlier in the day to use as a makeshift belt because his pants were too loose, according to court documents.
Georgia Court of Appeals Judge A. Harris Adams noted in a written opinion that the boy had previously been assessed by a school psychologist responsible for suicide prevention at the school after he made statements about killing himself.
The psychologist, Diana Henning, concluded that the statements were "learned behavior ... that it was an escape or attention-getting technique."
Henning concluded that the boy was an impulsive attention-seeker who used the "shock value" of suicidal acts and statements to get attention, according to the judge’s opinion.
"He indicated that he would make comments about suicide in order to get out of math class because he didn’t like the teacher, or because he was bored," according to the opinion’s summary of the assessment.
The psychologist consulted with Tina King about the suicidal comments and shared her opinions with the mother and school staff. Tina King also believed the threats her son made to harm himself were used as a means to manipulate her, according to the court’s opinion.
"It is undisputed that ... a psychologist with direct and extensive knowledge of Jonathan’s behavior had applied her professional judgment and concluded that Jonathan was not a suicide risk, and that opinion was disseminated throughout the school," the judge wrote.
Attorneys for the Kings have argued that the use of the unfurnished, 8-foot-by-8-foot seclusion room in the school represented a "constitutionally infirm" set of policies and procedures that presented risk of violating Jonathan’s rights.
In January, Hall County Chief Superior Court Judge C. Andrew Fuller granted a motion for summary judgment filed by the school, finding that the Kings did not have a case under the specific federal civil rights law they used as the basis of their lawsuit.
Fuller noted there may be a case for negligence, but not for the civil rights claim. The judge also found that there was no so-called "special relationship" between Jonathan and the school that could be compared to a prison inmate whose rights had been violated.
In its ruling, the state Court of Appeals agreed with Fuller’s findings.
"Compulsory school attendance laws did not create a constitutional duty for Pioneer RESA to protect Jonathan from harming himself," the court wrote.
Phil Hartley, the attorney representing Pioneer RESA, said this week his clients were "pleased that the Court of Appeals agreed with Judge Fuller’s decision and with the legal positions that we asserted.
"We were especially pleased that the court went to some effort to discuss the actions taken by staff members and why those actions were appropriate from a legal perspective," Hartley said. "We felt like the court understood the issues well and addressed them appropriately."
The Kings’ attorney, Wyc Orr, this week filed a motion for reconsideration with the appeals court.
"With all due respect to the Court of Appeals, we think they have made serious errors on the law and the facts of this case, and hopefully they’ll favorably consider our motion for reconsideration," Orr said.
Orr said should the latest motion be denied, he would ask the Georgia Supreme Court to hear an appeal of the case.