FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Can schools and teachers be held responsible if a bullied student commits suicide?
The Kentucky Supreme Court took up the question on Wednesday after the family of 13-year-old Stephen Patton sued teachers and school administrators. Defense attorneys disputed whether Stephen was even bullied and said they hadn't seen any other lawsuits where a family was able to hold school officials negligent.
Stephen, a 6-foot-3, 196-pound boy, towered over classmates, but his imposing presence didn't protect the shy kid with a stutter from bullies — and ultimately his suicide, his lawyer told the justices. The eighth-grader at Allen Central Middle School in Floyd County shot himself to death in November 2007 after he was constantly bullied in the school's halls and cafeteria, said his family's attorney, Vanessa Cantley.
"The teachers knew about it and they did nothing. They violated clear directives from school procedure," Cantley said.
Attorneys for seven school officials named in the suit countered that Stephen never complained to anyone. Stephen didn't leave a note, and they said his suicide was a mystery.
"There is absolutely no proof ... to demonstrate that he committed suicide because of anything that had to do with the school or the school district," said attorney Jonathan Shaw.
Neal Smith, an attorney for four teachers, said Stephen had suffered from migraines since age 5 and told another student he would rather die than have another severe headache.
Cantley said children are unlikely to admit being bullied out of embarrassment and fear of retaliation.
The lawsuit was dismissed by a Floyd County judge, a ruling upheld by the Kentucky Court of Appeals. The Patton family is asking the Supreme Court to send the case back to Floyd County for trial.
Cantley said a jury should decide if the alleged bullying was a "substantial factor" behind the suicide.
The justices grilled attorneys from both sides.
"Bullying is a matter of judgment with the teacher, is it not?" Justice Bill Cunningham asked.
Cantley said the district's anti-bullying policy specifically delves into what constitutes bullying and what teachers should do.
Smith said it's difficult for teachers to determine the difference between bullying and horseplay.
"If every incident of horseplay must be considered bullying, then the teachers won't be teaching," he said. "They'll be filling out bullying forms all day, every day."
Justice Lisabeth Hughes Abramson noted "there's probably no more difficult time than middle school."
"I doubt anybody went through middle school without either observing or participating in or being bullied," she said.
The attempt to pin negligence on school officials for a bullied student's suicide could have broader ramifications, Abramson said. The family of a domestic violence victim who commits suicide, for example, could try to hold the perpetrator responsible for the death, Abramson said.
"It seems to me that suicide is one of those complex, human events that has so many factors," Abramson said.
Cantley said Stephen was mocked for his stutter, and had his lunch box seized by bullies who took whatever they wanted and threw the rest on the floor.
"He never fought back," she said. "He was a gentle giant."
The Patton family is seeking unspecified monetary damages in the suit. The family wants to use that money to set up a memorial foundation in Stephen's name to provide anti-bullying education and training, she said.