Q: I have heard that a coroner’s inquest has found a school district guilty of something. How does a coroner get involved in school district business?
A: What is the surprise? Everyone seems to know better than school administrators and are certainly not shy about sharing their opinions.
However, the idea of a coroner’s jury finding a school district to be culpable in a student suicide is shocking. More troubling is the total lack of due process provided in such inquests.
State statute allows the county coroner to convene an inquest to determine the cause of death. In the inquest that you reference, it was determined that the student tragically took his life with a self-inflicted gunshot wound. When questioned why an inquest was convened when the cause of death was known, the coroner stated that the inquest would determine why this student took his life. The coroner was reminded that the deceased student was the only person who knew what motivated him. The loss of any student is tragic, but putting dedicated educators at risk does nothing to soften the loss of this young person.
More problematic is the process that coroners follow at these inquests. First, neither the school district, nor any district employee was advised that their actions were at issue. Rather, the district provided copies of comprehensive bullying policies; their bullying training program as well as completed bullying reporting forms. In addition, the district made available staff members, with the teachers consent, for interviews with the sheriff’s office and the coroner. At the conclusion of the meeting, the teachers and district officials were told they were not the focus of the inquest. Rather, the coroner wanted to clear up the rumor that teachers had resigned because of the student’s death. However, that was not the case.
The inquest jury found the district had followed its policies and procedures. Nonetheless, they found the district, in part, responsible for the suicide claiming that he was bullied at school and that bullying was, in part, responsible for his death.
How did the jury reach the conclusion? At a coroner’s inquest, the party under suspicion, even in secret, is not told about the evidence; is not provided such basic documents as suicide notes and police reports; is not allowed to be represented by an attorney; not given the identity of witnesses; not allowed to offer evidence in defense of themselves; not allowed to cross-examine witnesses or even address the jury. A coroner can, if they wish, determine what outcome they want from the jury and then simply cherry-pick the evidence that upholds their preconceived notion.
Some would say, so what. The inquest jury did not, or has not, resulted in any official actions against the district or its staff. But I say, individuals who have devoted their career to educating, caring for and protecting their students have had their reputations destroyed. Those reputations were destroyed without even the most minimal due process or the ability to defend themselves.
In my over thirty years of practice, I have never seen or heard of a coroner’s inquest divining the intent of a young person who took his life. Never have I seen the reputations and character of dedicated educators being so damaged without evidence of any knowledge of any bulling and no report of bullying of this young man.
As often said, the loss of any young person is tragic and these tragedies are deeply felt by his teachers and principals as well as family and friends. Unfortunately, we live in a time when public education, teachers, administrators and board members are under attack.
Due to the circumstances of these times, school districts must face every student suicide with the empathy and grieving of staff and students. But they must also immediately prepare to face individual or individuals who with or without any basis blame school staff for the suicide. In order to prepare, contact your attorney immediately. Preserve all records, including security tapes, student records, documentation, including incident or bullying reports. At the first inkling that the county coroner may be interested, the district with its counsel need to prepare for an inquest. It is also critical that the district keep its parents, community, students and staff current with accurate information. An experienced school attorney should be able to help you with the task.
What happened to quality, dedicated people last month is a tragic miscarriage of justice. The tragedy of losing a wonderful young man is now compounded by unprincipled attacks on educators. Unfortunately, this is the world we live in so you must be prepared.
Article provided by Mickes O'Toole, LLC, Thomas Mickes.