IF SOMETHING IS going wrong in a child’s life – slipping grades, anxiety, depression, injury, or worse – their school community can see warning signs that may not always show up at home. But if a public school employee is made aware of the possibility – or even likelihood – of a student hurting themself, but does nothing about it, they are probably immune from any legal liability should the student die by suicide, the Massachusetts Appeals Court ruled.
The decision, issued late last month, comes at a time when schools are assuming a greater role in supporting students’ mental health. But the court ruling suggested that does not extend to legal responsibility for public institutions to try to prevent a suicide.
The case involves the tragic death of 16-year-old Jacob Goyette. Jacob was the sixth young student or recent graduate of the Acton-Boxborough Regional School District to die by suicide within 30 months in the late 2010s. As the Boston Globe reported at the time, the community was devastated by the series of deaths, looking for answers and finding few.
In the months before his death in the summer of 2018, Acton-Boxborough Regional High School knew Jacob was struggling with anxiety, ADHD, and impulsivity, the court recounted. He had stopped doing his homework and was failing classes. Over the prior year, three of his grandparents had died, and one of his friends in the district had died by suicide.
By May 2018, Jacob’s girlfriend was deeply worried, telling school social worker Martha Frost that Jacob was drinking alcohol on school grounds – “drunk, upset, and crying” — and “that something was really wrong,” according to the court. His behavior reminded his girlfriend of another student who recently committed suicide, and she “told Frost that she thought Jacob was going to do something stupid, including possibly hurting himself,” according to the court ruling.
Frost told the girlfriend that she would contact Jacob’s parents and school administrators to make sure he got help, according to the court’s account. But after meeting with Jacob – a meeting about which no records were kept – Frost never followed through to speak with his parents about his girlfriend’s concerns. Jacob killed himself at home six weeks later.
His parents did not find out until two months after his death that Frost, who had been working under a one-year contract with the district, had been warned about Jacob and met with him. Frost, the school principal told them, was no longer contracted with the school.
If the social worker hadn’t promised to tell Jacob’s parents, his girlfriend said, she would have. The decision not to pass along the concerns “deprived Jacob’s parents of the opportunity to intervene on Jacob’s behalf by bringing informed, professional mental health supports and treatment to bear,” argued the lawsuit against Frost and the school district, brought by Jacob’s mother, Shannon Paradis. “Such treatments are commonly known to be highly successful in preventing youth suicide,” it said.
But the way state law treats public institutions, there has to be some sort of action or intervention by an employee that “caused” the issue.
“Jacob’s suicide was the result of his own state of mind and not the failures of Frost,” wrote Massachusetts Appeals Court Justice Maureen Walsh. “It therefore follows that the school district is immune for any failure to prevent or diminish the ‘harmful consequences’ of Jacob’s ‘condition or situation.’”
Debbie Helms, program supervisor of Samaritans of Merrimack Valley who sits on the Massachusetts Coalition for Suicide Prevention executive committee, decried the Appeals Court ruling that the district was immune from liability.
“My first reaction to that was, well, if the counselor and the school isn’t responsible, when kids are in there nine months a year, six or seven hours a day, and playing sports and everything else, then who is responsible?”
DUTY TO PROTECT
In most instances, even if taking some action is widely seen as the right thing to do, there is no legal obligation to intervene to prevent a person from doing something that may harm themselves. But certain relationships between an institution and a person under its care or in its custody – like a prison and an inmate – might carry that legal responsibility.
The wrongful death lawsuit brought by Paradis argues that public schools have the kind of relationship with students that obligates them to intervene if they know a student is at risk. There is some basis for that argument, coming from a similar case brought by the same lawyer, Jeffrey Beeler, who represents Jacob’s family.
In May 2018, the same month Jacob’s girlfriend reported she was worried about him, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that there could be some sort of need for colleges and universities to try to save a student’s life.
In that case, Beeler represented the family of Han Duy Nguyen, a 25-year-old graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who killed himself in 2009. MIT was aware of Nguyen’s fragile mental state and should have tried to prevent his death, Beeler argued.
“Universities are clearly not bystanders or strangers in regards to their students,” the court acknowledged, and said they have relationships with their students beyond the purely academic by housing, feeding, and sponsoring them.
However, the court concluded that Nguyen had taken care to keep his mental health struggles and academic world separate, and given that universities try to balance respecting the autonomy of their adult students with their obligations as supervising authority, MIT had not behaved negligently and caused his death.
The court said its ruling was based on the particulars of Nguyen’s case – including being 25 and living off campus – but that a university could be held responsible in another situation where it failed to take action when aware of a student’s risk of suicide.
“[I]n certain circumstances not present here, a special relationship and a corresponding duty to take reasonable measures to prevent suicide may be created between a university and its student,” Justice Scott Kafker wrote for the court.
Beeler argued in the Paradis case that the “special relationship” principle Kafker laid out in the MIT decision should be extended to public schools.
The Appeals Court said that argument “may have some force,” but its decision stopped short of actually wrestling with that question because of another legal issue at play in the case: Under Massachusetts law, a public high school, unlike a private university such as MIT, is shielded in some instances by immunity protection.
The state Tort Claims Act specifically exempts public employees and their employers from liability in negligence cases, with some limited exceptions. Beeler argued that the Acton-Boxborough school employees should not be granted this immunity because the social worker caused a situation – by assuring Jacob’s girlfriend that his parents would be informed – that resulted in Jacob’s death.
Neither the lower nor the Appeals Court, however, agreed that the actions of Frost, the school social worker, qualified as the sort of action that would override immunity protections. Jacob’s underlying mental health was the “cause” of his suicide, and the employee hadn’t intervened in a way that would shift responsibility over to her.
“At most, Frost’s statements that she would inform Jacob’s parents (and her failure to do so) were negligent omissions, and not acts of intervention,” Walsh wrote.
This understanding of legal immunity “does nothing to advance the cause of student safety,” Beeler said following the ruling. “The result will inevitably be more neglect, irresponsibility and harm.” By throwing out the case at this stage, no jury can hear it, meaning “the harsh reality is that Massachusetts’ Courts are effectively closed to those injured by the negligent actions of public employers – no matter how bad the conduct at issue or the consequences for the victims,” Beeler said.
Jacob’s family has not yet made a decision about appealing the case to the Supreme Judicial Court, Beeler said.
Legislators could act to change the immunity rule, though they have indicated no particular interest. For now, the state’s priority is in bulking up resources at the school level to identify suicide risk and encourage intervention.
“Suicide is everybody’s responsibility in my professional and personal experience,” Helms said. “Everybody should be aware of it; everybody should at least have some basic ideas about what the warning signs are, what the risk factors are, and what to do about it, how to talk to somebody, what other resources they can use.”
A SEPARATE LIFE
The average Massachusetts public school student spends about 180 days – half the days in a year – in school. They slump out of bed, schlep over to school, sit in classes, scarf down lunch, study or slack off after the day, socialize with friends and family for their few precious free hours before often getting too little sleep, and then do it all again.
Between tests, hormones, and life pressures, many students are struggling with their mental health, and education officials seem to be taking notice.
A new statewide health education framework approved in September suggests that school curriculums for older students consider “working to reduce the stigma of mental health conditions and helping others to understand the warning signs of suicide.”
“We have to pay attention to students’ physical well-being and their mental health, in addition to food security, housing stability, because those things are sort of the foundation for student learning and growth,” said Education Secretary Patrick Tutwiler, who visited students in Woburn last week – at the tail end of National Suicide Prevention Month – and spoke about mental health issues.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, suicide was the second-leading cause of death among people aged 10–34 before the pandemic. Experts and advocates say, though suicide data is always a few years delayed, that the pandemic inflamed an already stressful time in young people’s lives into a full-blown crisis. Nationally only 34 percent of teens polled by Morning Consult said they were satisfied with their mental health in summer 2023.
A report on Massachusetts youth suicidality released last year found that 415 youths died by suicide between 2015 and 2019, representing 12 percent of all suicides in the state. A majority of the young people who died by suicide had diagnosed mental health problems, like Jacob, and almost half had a history of mental health illness treatment. One in five had tried to end their lives before.
Data on these conditions, and others like alcohol abuse and intimate partner issues, can “highlight opportunities for future prevention efforts,” the report stated.
While the recent court decision clears his school of legal liability, for now, the district says it takes seriously its role in supporting students’ mental health.
“Jacob’s death was a tragic event and our thoughts remain with his family,” Acton-Boxborough Regional School District superintendent Peter Light said in a statement. “I can’t imagine what the last few years have been like for them. We have invested heavily in making sure our students are safe and have sufficient access to mental health resources.”
Almost a decade ago, state lawmakers voted to require all public school districts and charter schools to provide at least two hours of suicide awareness and prevention training every three years to all licensed school personnel. But that law was “subject to appropriation” and never funded.
A spokesperson for the Executive Office of Education said a new push to fund the training is likely.
In the meantime, the state is touting mental health supports as an essential part of elementary and secondary education. Tutwiler highlighted the new state budget, which significantly bolsters guidance and psychological services at schools across the state. The Department of Public Health’s suicide prevention and intervention program will rise to $8 million, including a $1 million earmark for the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.
The Legislature also added $1 million in its budget plan for a separate youth-led suicide and mental health hotline called “Hey Sam.” Healey vetoed the line item, but House lawmakers voted on Wednesday to override that veto, and the state Senate is set to begin override votes this week.
Meanwhile, the Department of Mental Health’s child and adolescent services will see a $7 million increase from the previous budget, Tutwiler noted.
He said many of the state’s efforts are ultimately aimed at detecting the potential risks of suicide before it’s too late. “Those are the kinds of supports or enhancements that are going to help districts understand the mental health scene more deeply,” Tutwiler said, “to sort of get ahead of the challenges that ultimately lead to that tragic outcome.”