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The reason some parents are suing schools when a child commits suicide
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She was a petite cheerleader with blonde hair and a winsome smile, just 12 years old when she took her own life.

No one disputes that Mallory Grossman killed herself in June of 2017. But is anyone else responsible for her death?

Thats a question now making its way through the judicial system of New Jersey, as Mallorys parents seek to hold a school district responsible for their daughters death, saying administrators didnt do enough to protect the sixth-grader from merciless bullying.

The Grossmans are not alone in their quest for accountability. Among the people who have filed lawsuits over suicides this year are a widow who is suing the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for not better securing the George Washington Bridge, and grieving parents who say the University of Pennsylvania didnt do enough to help their daughter, who told counselors she was thinking about suicide.

Such lawsuits are challenging because of the fundamental fact of suicide: the deceased took his or her own life, which is why, in many religious traditions, suicide was long considered a sin.

So is it ever ethical to blame a suicide on another person, or an institution? And conversely, can a person or institution that was actively involved with a person before a suicide shrug it off, wash their hands of a death?

Some previous judgments suggest that blame can be shared. A Texas attorney who specializes in suicide cases said he wins the majority of cases filed against mental-health providers who failed to keep a suicidal person alive. In Massachusetts last year, a woman was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for sending texts encouraging her boyfriend to kill herself.

But when parents like the Grossmans attempt to hold educators accountable for a child's suicide, the school districts usually prevail, says a retired Pennsylvania professor and attorney who studies suicide litigation. And in recent ruling in Massachusetts, the state Supreme Court wrote, "Generally, there is no duty to prevent another from committing suicide.

That doesnt deter Dianne Grossman, Mallorys mother, who has started a nonprofit to combat bullying in her daughters memory, and believes that litigation is one way to combat the nations rising suicide rate.

I say, follow the money. Thats how youre going to make this stop, Grossman said.

The fault line

While Mallory died at her own hands, her parents believe she wouldn't have killed herself if it wasn't for the incessant bullying she had faced in school for more than a year, and what the Grossmans say was the school district's ineffectual response to their pleas for help.

On the day of Mallory's suicide, she and her mother met with administrators about the girls who had been taunting Mallory in person and online. The schools response, according to the Grossmans, was devastatingly insufficient, in effect leaving Mallory to believe the only way to escape the harassment was to end her life.

Although it was other students, not the administrators, who made Mallory miserable, the school had a responsibility to protect Mallory from the bullying and failed, according to the lawsuit the Grossmans filed last month.

The administrations response over the course of a year had included asking Mallory to hug the girls who bullied her, and removing her from classes, instead of taking action against the bullies, the family alleges. (The district said in a statement that its staff, now and in the past, is "committed to protecting the rights and safety for all of our students.")

In an interview, Dianne Grossman said her daughter was entitled to a hate-free learning environment yet much of the bullying had taken place on school grounds.

I think schools are responsible for the mental well-being of our children. Just like they are responsible for the academics, for the ABCs and 123s, theyre also responsible for their emotional well-being," Grossman said.

Lawsuits like these are sometimes settled out of court, but when a judge decides, the parents rarely prevail, said Perry Zirkel, professor emeritus of education and law at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Of 59 court decisions between 1991 and early 2018 that Zirkel and co-investigator Richard Fossey found, only one ruling was conclusively in favor of the plaintiff, in part because of what Zirkel and Fossey described as "a traditional judicial deference to school authorities."

Families seeking to hold other parties liable for a suicide also come up against the words of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which, in its guidelines for reporters, caution not to say a suicide was caused by a single event such as a job loss or divorce, "since research shows no one takes their life for a single reason, but rather a combination of factors."

Duty of care

Suicide has been called a public health crisis, accounting for twice the number of deaths in America than homicide. (Montana is No. 1 in suicide deaths per capita, with Utah not far behind at No. 5, according to 2016 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Almost 45,000 Americans died at their own hands in 2016, the most recent year for which statistics are available. Of those deaths, 436 were among ages 10-14, 5,723 among ages 15 to 24, and 7,366 among ages 25-34, making it the second leading cause of death (after accidental injuries) in those age groups. But analysts say the true numbers are likely higher since some suicides could be listed as accidental injuries on death certificates.

The vast majority of families grieve privately and dont consult attorneys. But for those who do, there are firms that specialize in suicide-related litigation, and a range of cause that goes beyond school bullying.

In one case filed earlier this year, the estate of Michael A. Lorig filed suit against JP Morgan Chase & Co., alleging the companys treatment of a long-time employee known to suffer from depression and anxiety led to his suicide.

In another, the widow of New Jersey architect Andrew Donaldson sued the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for $100 million, charging that it did not adequately secure the George Washington Bridge in order to keep suicidal people from jumping. Donaldson, who died in July 2017, was one of five suicides there within two months.

Carol Nelson Shepherd represents the family of Olivia Kong, who was an honors student at the University of Pennsylvania when she died in April of 2016. Earlier this year, Kongs parents sued the school for negligence and wrongful death, among other things, alleging that university counselors intentionally disregarded, completely ignored and/or utterly failed to understand Olivias repeated pleas for help and specific statements that she was feeling hopeless and considering suicide.

Shepherd, a founding partner of a law firm in Philadelphia, said every state has different laws about liability in the deaths of others, and so its impossible to generalize about how such cases play out. But she noted that in the recent decision involving the suicide at MIT, the court said there is no duty to prevent another from committing suicide in general terms, but that in specific cases, such as a student announcing plans to take his life, a person or entity might bear some responsibility.

In that case, the family of a 25-year-old doctoral student sued the school, an assistant dean and two professors, saying they were negligent in not preventing the suicide. That's a common legal strategy, Shepherd said.

Most cases fall under negligence. What was the duty of the individual, under the circumstances, if they had noticed the individual was at risk? she said.

A pattern of suicides also adds to the strength of a case, as in the 4 other suicides that occurred within two months at the bridge where the New Jersey architect jumped.

At the University of Pennsylvania, 14 students have taken their lives since 2013, a rate that is twice that of other U.S. universities, Shepherd said.

Do lawsuits help?

In the wake of her daughters death, Dianne Grossman started an anti-bullying organization called Mallorys Army, which, in addition to helping children who are bullied, gives parents a place to share their stories, their hindsight.

What Im seeing is parents waiting until the eleventh hour. And then theyre going, I have an appointment at 3. Well, its too late at that point, she said.

Grossman herself has regrets. I waited too late to seek professional help. I trusted (the school administrators) knew what they were doing. I trusted their masters degrees, she said. I should have been an advocate for Mallory and what she was experiencing."

Zirkel, professor emeritus at Lehigh University, said most families who sue go into litigation without knowing how bad their odds are. Research like his has limited exposure in academic journals, and after a flurry of publicity when a lawsuit is filed, the outcomes usually don't become public. Shepherd said the Kong case will likely not go to trial, if it does at all, for several years.

Many lawsuits are filed and dismissed or settled without publicity, although some families do receive money. Earlier this year, the mother of a 15-year-old who took his own life after enduring what the lawsuit called "a culture of bullying" received $185,000 in a settlement in South Dakota. And in Morristown, New Jersey, the mother of a bullied 15-year-old who took his own life in 2012 received $625,000 in a settlement announced earlier this year.

But Grossman said money is not the point, rather using litigation to force a change on a large scale. Until insurance companies get tired of paying out lawsuits, youre never to see a real change," she said.

If we really want change in our school systems, were going to have to go after the people who have the chutzpah to go into the schools and say, 'no youre going to do it this way from now on.'"

Skip Simpson, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice in Texas, cautions that legally speaking, money is the only ethical reason for a lawsuit. A grieving or angry family cant file a lawsuit in hopes of punishing another party in some other way, such as losing a license, he said. All they can seek is money as recompense for their loss.

Simpson, who is also on the board of the American Association of Suicidology, warns his would-be clients that filing suit may add to their pain. Going through litigation is hard, he said. Youre going to have to relive this all over again.

And defense attorneys may blame the parents for the death, trying to shame people who are already feeling guilty. Theyre already blaming themselves; its natural, Simpson said.

But in his specialty, which is lawsuits involving mental-health professionals entrusted with the care of a suicidal person, Simpson said about 98 percent of his cases end in a settlement or a jury finding for the plaintiff.

"These cases aren't hard," he said, adding, "I'm not trying to make money. I'm trying to attack the issue."

Taryn Hiatt, area director for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in Utah and Nevada, reiterated her organizations stance that suicide does not have a single cause, and noted CDC research that shows many people who take their own lives have an undiagnosed mental health condition.

Its almost like a cup of water being filled to the brim, and bullying could be the last drop that puts them over the edge, that pushes them beyond their ability to cope, she said.

But, Hiatt added, We do know people who have been bullied who dont go on to die from suicide.

As to Grossman's belief that litigation can help inspire change, Hiatt said, "There's some truth to that."

I dont know that lawsuits are always the answer, but people do need to be held accountable for their behavior and how we treat one another. Unfortunately, sometimes (lawsuits) are the catalysts that inspire change.