Toolbox Tuesday!! School employee tries to send student to psych ward. Gets sued.

Imagine this scenario: you are the Coordinator for Elementary Special Education.  One morning you are summoned to an elementary school because the staff is fearful that one of the students—a boy with autism—intends to kill or otherwise do harm to students and teachers.  Among other things, the staff has confiscated the boy’s list of the people in the school who are “Subjects for Weapon X.”  You are in Connecticut—not far from Sandy Hook.

Now imagine that you are the boy’s father.  Shortly after you drop your son off at school you get a call from the school asking you to return immediately.  When you arrive at the school you see a fire engine and an ambulance.  You are informed that the school has called for the ambulance to take the boy to the Yale psych ward for an emergency evaluation.

According to the subsequent lawsuit, the dad implored the school not to take the boy away in an ambulance. The last time the little boy saw his mother before she died was when she was loaded into an ambulance.  The dad offered to take the boy, but the Coordinator said no, insisting that “it’s the law” and “there’s nothing you can do about it.”  When the boy saw the police show up he was fearful that they were going to take his father away from him.  According to the suit, the boy said “Please don’t take my father.  My mother died of cancer.  He’s the only person I have; he’s a good guy.”

Things settled down after that.  After a conversation between the Coordinator, the dad, the principal and the police, the school allowed the dad to take his son home. No ambulance. No psych ward.  No emergency evaluation.

But the dad sued the Coordinator, alleging that she intentionally inflicted emotional distress on the young boy with autism. That’s a tough case to prove, and the dad in this case fell short.  The court held that the Coordinator did not humiliate, embarrass or mistreat the student in any way. Key Quote:

Riccitelli [the Coordinator] did not abuse or misuse her authority as a school official or use it as a cloak for misconduct, as it is undisputed that Board of Education Policy required her to take action to ensure school safety under the circumstances as she understood them to be. 

In an era when school shootings are a distinct possibility, you can understand how a situation like this might unravel, even when everyone is acting in good faith. I suspect that’s the case here.  The Coordinator feared for student safety and sought to follow protocol.  The parent reacted strongly in an effort to protect the child.

This is the type of thing we talk about in the Toolbox training that our firm provides. We offer guidance on the ten “tools” available to school personnel when dealing with potentially dangerous situations like this one. 

This case is Suraci v. Hamden Board of Education, decided by the District Court in Connecticut on January 10, 2019.  We found it at 73 IDELR 173.


Tomorrow: Remember the Irving “clock boy”?