Tuesday, June 2, 2009
School Official Ruled Not Liable For Student’s Suicide
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
A Riverside school official who denied 14-year old Anthony Soltero a school trip to Disneyland and lectured him on the possible legal consequences of truancy after he left campus to participate in protests against then-pending immigration reform measures did not violate Soltero’s constitutional rights and was not liable for the boy’s subsequent suicide, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
Affirming a grant of summary judgment in favor of the Ontario-Montclair School District, De Anza Middle School Vice Principal Gene Bennett, and other school officials by U.S. District Court Judge Stephen G. Larson of the Central District of California, the appellate court ruled that the school’s policy of disciplining students for leaving campus without permission satisfied the intermediate scrutiny applied to content-neutral rules of conduct and that Bennett, in enforcing those rules, did not proximately cause Soltero’s death.
On March 28, 2006, Soltero and three other students walked off campus near the beginning of the school day.
Annette Prieto, one of the students accompanying Soltero, claimed that the group had planned to walk to Ontario High School and participate in a protest against the passage of federal legislation that would have made it a crime to assist or help undocumented immigrants.
The group was joined by a few high school students, and proceeded to Ontario Middle School, but did not encounter any students or protest activity there. As classes at De Anza were over by that time, the De Anza students decided to go home.
After identifying the students who had left campus, Bennett met with the group. Prieto testified that Bennett told them they were not going to be allowed to participate in an upcoming Disneyland trip, that they were each going to have to pay a $250 fine, that he was going to “get the cops involved,” and that they were “going to have to go to Juvenile Hall.”
Prieto said Soltero told her he was scared that his mother would be mad at him and that he was worried about being sent to juvenile hall or having to pay the fine.
At the time, Soltero was on probation as a result of having brought a knife to school the previous spring. He faced three years in custody if he violated the terms of his probation.
Soltero’s mother said she spoke to him on the telephone after school and Soltero told her he was in trouble. When she returned home an hour later, she found Soltero had shot himself. The boy was later pronounced dead.
He had left a suicide note in which he said he killed himself because he had “to[o] many problems,” for which he blamed Bennett.
None of the students were fined or sent to juvenile hall, and the police were never involved with the students’ truancies.
Soltero’s parents, Prieto, and others subsequently filed suit against the school district and various school officials asserting violations of the students’ and parents’ civil rights, infliction of emotional distress, and negligence resulting in Soltero’s death.
The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, which Larson granted in full, finding the school had validly disciplined the students, and the students’ actions did not constitute protected First Amendment activity.
Writing for the appellate court, Judge Cynthia Holcomb Hall noted that a reasonable jury could have found that the students were engaged in expressive conduct, but explained that they were disciplined for leaving campus without permission, not for their speech.
Hall reasoned that the school’s anti-truancy policy was a narrowly tailored, content-neutral rule that furthered several substantial government interests. “As such, the incidental effect the rule has on the students’ expressive conduct is permissible, and the students’ First Amendment rights have not been infringed by punishing the act of leaving campus,” she said, even if the students sought to leave for expressive purposes.
And even assuming that the students had shown they engaged in a constitutionally protected activity, Hall added, their claim would still fail because they did not produce any evidence that Bennett’s actions were retaliatory or motivated by ill will.
Bennett’s statements in warning of the real consequences of continued violation of laws, though “stern” and “perhaps unduly harsh,” were neither extreme nor outrageous, Hall said. She reasoned that a court decision exposing an administrator to liability for warning students of the consequences of their behavior would “severely handicap his or her ability to set children back on the correct path.”
Turning to the issue of liability for Soltero’s suicide, Hall explained that a person’s self-inflicted death is an independent intervening force in the chain of causation if that individual “‘is able to realize the nature of the act of suicide and has the power to control it if he so desires.’”
Since Soltero attended classes after his meeting with Bennett, spoke to Prieto and his mother, and wrote a detailed suicide note before his death, Hall noted “the record seems to show he had the opportunity to appreciate the nature of his actions” and therefore concluded his death was an unforeseeable and extraordinary event for which the defendants were not liable.
Judge Harry Pregerson and U.S. District Judge David Alan Ezra of Hawaii, sitting by designation, joined Hall in her decision.
R. Samuel Paz of the Law Offices of R. Samuel Paz and Sonia M. Mercado of Sonia Mercado & Associates represented the plaintiffs. Jacqueline DeWarr Berryessa of the Law Offices of Margaret A. Chidester & Associates represented the school district.
The case is Corales v. Bennett, 07-55892.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company