The court is not “a roving educational administrator….”

I’m going to tell you about the court’s decision in the case of Avila v. Harlingen CISD, but the main point of emphasis today is on strengthening services to meet the mental health needs of students.  This is student suicide case. A sixth grader.  Regardless of how the courts view such matters, every one of these tragedies is a reminder that our public schools are serving many children who are carrying something that feels too heavy for them to bear. 

The federal court dismissed the lawsuit filed by the boy’s parents. The suit named both the district and one of the student’s teachers as defendants. The court dismissed all claims against both parties.  When I read decisions like this, I can tell that the judge is trying to express personal empathy while at the same time analyzing the legal issues objectively, based on existing standards of the law.  Thus we get a quote like this:

The Court notes that Jake’s death is undeniably tragic. It sympathizes with the pain that the Plaintiffs continue to experience, even if it cannot fully appreciate it.  But the Court’s role is not a roving educational administrator that judges the parties based on best practices or what it thinks should happen. 

The legal standards are pretty clear. Students have a constitutional right to be free of violations of their bodily integrity inflicted by school employees. This is why a teacher sexually molesting a student implicates constitutional issues. But public schools do not have a constitutional duty to protect students from any and all harms.  They are not responsible for protecting students from acts of violence inflicted by others.  Thus the court concluded that there was no constitutional violation here, either by the school or by the teacher.

The federal court for the Southern District of Texas dismissed the suit on December 15, 2021.  My partners Leandra Ortiz (Rio Grande Valley office) and Katie Payne (San Antonio) helped the district navigate this difficult case. 

Your district has policies that address student threats of self harm. Take a look at FFB Legal and FFB Local.  “Threat assessments” are called for when students make threats of self harm.  They are not only about threats of violence aimed at others.  Take a look also at FFEA Legal, which cites the Texas Family Code for the proposition that minors can give consent for counseling for suicide prevention, TFC 32.004(a). 

We need more staff. We need more funding.  While we advocate for more help from the state, we have to use what resources we have wisely.  I’d be delighted to never again have a student suicide case to tell you about.


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Tomorrow: Toolbox Tuesday!!