Pennsylvania District Court Finds School District May Have Acted Deliberately Indifferent When It Failed To Provide Appropriate Services To Student With Suicidal Ideations

In Beam v. Western Wayne School District, 2018 WL 6567722, the Court denied the Defendants’ motion for summary judgment.  The Plaintiff’s son C.B. was in tenth grade at the District when he tragically committed suicide after returning home from school on the last day of the 2012-2013 school year.  As a result, the Plaintiffs, Michael and Dorothy Beam, brought suit against the District and several individual District employees.  The Plaintiffs alleged that C.B.’s suicide was a result of Defendants’ failure to implement and follow an appropriate educational plan for him.

In 2008, C.B. was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (“ADHD”).  From 2008 until 2013, C.B. had a Section 504 plan in place at school to accommodate his ADHD.  C.B. was prescribed medication for his ADHD and saw a therapist regarding his difficulty concentrating to focus on his academic work.  C.B. struggled with his grades throughout the 2012-2013 school year.  Plaintiffs once only learned about C.B.’s failing grades from his First, Second, and Third Marking Period report card and subsequent failure notices.  After C.B. received failing grades during the Third Marking Period, C.B. expressed suicidal ideation to his therapist and stated that he felt like a failure.

After receiving notice of C.B.’s failing grades, the Parents contacted the school and scheduled a meeting.  At the meeting C.B.’s mother conveyed that he was having suicidal ideation related to his fear of failing.  As a result of this meeting, C.B.’s Section 504 Plan was amended to include four new provisions: progress reports to be mailed home, classroom teacher clarification of assignment instructions and deadlines, increased meetings with C.B.’s guidance counselor, and assistance with large projects. After the 504 Plan meeting, four weeks passed without any substantive information about C.B. being sent from the School District to Plaintiffs. On June 17, 2013, immediately after receiving notice of his multiple failing grades on the last day of school, C.B. committed suicide by a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

As such, the Parents filed a complaint.  The Parents’ complaint alleged a violation of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Count I), violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (Count II), a Section 1983 claim based on state created danger (Count III); loss of consortium (Count IV); a survival action (Count V); and wrongful Death (Count VI). On July 31, 2015, the Defendants filed a Motion to Dismiss the Complaint. The Motion to Dismiss was granted in part as to all of the individual Defendants and Counts III-VI. The District filed a Motion for Summary Judgment on July 16, 2018.

First, the Defendants argued in their motion for summary judgment that the Plaintiffs’ failed to exhaust their administrative remedies under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (“IDEA”). The Defendants argued that the Plaintiffs’ claims could have been brought under IDEA and their failure to do so meant that the Plaintiffs did not exhaust all of their administrative remedies.  The Plaintiffs conceded that they failed to exhaust all administrative remedies.  However, the Plaintiffs argued that they were not required to exhaust all administrative remedies because exhaustion would have been futile.  The Plaintiffs argued that C.B.’s death nullified the efficacy of the IDEA’s equitable remedies his family could obtain in an administrative proceeding.

The Court agreed with the Plaintiffs and found that exhaustion of the Plaintiffs’ administrative remedies would have been futile.  Specifically, the Court cited W.B. v. Matula, W.B. v. Matula, 67 F.3d 484 (3d Cir. 1995).  In Matula, the Third Circuit suggested a narrow exception to the IDEA exhaustion requirement may exist “where the parents of a deceased child seek damages for a school board’s failure to provide IDEA services while the child was still alive.” Id. at 496.

Additionally, the Court denied the Defendants’ motion for summary judgment for the Plaintiffs’ claim under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The Plaintiffs’ Section 504 claim was based on a theory of failure to provide reasonable accommodation. The Court reviewed whether the District should have provided C.B. with the accommodations laid out in his Section 504 plans and whether WWSD did in fact provide him with these accommodations. The Court reviewed deposition testimony regarding the lack of communication between the District and the Parents. Therefore, the Court found that a genuine issue of material fact existed as to whether the District complied with C.B.’s Section 504 Plan provision pertaining to email communication while the original Section 504 Plan was still in effect.

Also, the Court found that there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the District had actual knowledge that a federal right was being violated and that the District’s failure to act was not mere negligence. The Court noted that the Plaintiffs submitted into the record that they informed the District about C.B.’s suicidal ideations related to his fear of failure and that they had not received any communication from the District regarding C.B.’s failing grades or notices required by the amended 504 Plan.  Accordingly, the Court determined that summary judgment was not proper on Count I.

Additionally, the Court denied the Defendants’ motion for summary judgment regarding the Count II because Section 504 and ADA claims are subject to the same analysis and thus may be addressed at the same time.

Beam emphasizes the importance that School Districts properly implement student’s 504 Plans.  Also, the District should be cognizant of parental complaints due to a lack of communication.  If a student’s 504 Plan includes particular communication with the parents of the student’s progress, a District should ensure that the parent is receiving all communications required under the 504 Plan. Also, the District should be cognizant of parental complaints due to a lack of communication. Moreover, the District should be aware that Parents are generally not required to exhaust their administrative remedies under IDEA if the child is deceased.

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