FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — After Stephen Patton shot himself to death in his bedroom, his family sued teachers and school administrators, saying they didn't put a stop to bullying endured by the shy teenager with a stutter.
The family lost its appeal Thursday before the Kentucky Supreme Court, which said they failed to offer sufficient proof the eighth-grader was bullied at Allen Central Middle School in eastern Kentucky.
The court said school administrators were entitled to qualified immunity from the family's lawsuit, but such protection did not extend to teachers. The court's interpretation could loom as a factor in future cases.
Standing at 6-foot-3, Stephen towered over classmates, but the family said his imposing presence didn't protect him from bullies — and ultimately his suicide in 2007 at age 13.
The school had an anti-bullying policy that required school staff members to report any bullying they witnessed to their supervisor. Staff was trained on bullying prevention and detection, anti-bullying posters were displayed at school and a bullying box allowed students to submit anonymous claims.
Stephen's family claimed several teachers and administrators were negligent because they knew, or should have known, of the bullying he suffered in the school's halls and cafeteria.
The family also said the anti-bullying policies were inadequate and not followed.
"The problem with the estate's negligence claim is the complete absence of proof regarding the bullying Patton allegedly endured," Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr. said in writing for the unanimous court.
The family's attorney claimed to have affidavits from Stephen's classmates, but they weren't placed in the record.
"That is not to say that the burden rests solely on students for claims of this nature to proceed; rather, it is simply a recognition that the record before us cannot bear the weight the estate places upon it," Minton said.
The family had lost prior verdicts in a lower court and before the Kentucky Court of Appeals.
In granting qualified immunity to the school administrators, the Supreme Court said the officials complied with requirements to create anti-bullying policy and were not tasked with supervising students.
Teachers, however, were assigned to enforce the anti-bullying policy, the court said.
"We should be clear that the teachers or those similarly situated in future cases are not without defenses; they simply are not immune from suit," Minton wrote. "A flood of litigation against teachers is not foreseeable because a teacher acting under such extensive policies must still be found negligent."