In 2009, 13-year-old Hope Witsell hanged herself after a topless photo she texted to avoid made the rounds of her Florida school. Now her parents are suing the district, saying the school didn't do enough to help her.
When news of Witsell's picture first reached Hillsborough County school officials, they apparently suspended her. According to Reuters, they later noticed that Witsell was self-harming, and so a school social worker made her sign a "no-harm contract" in which she promised to call the social worker if she had thoughts of suicide. But the social worker didn't tell Witsell's parents, the school psychologist, or any other officials about the contract, and Witsell killed herself the very next day. Now her parents are suing the school for negligence and violation of their rights.
According to Tampa Bay Online, many experts take a dim view of no-harm contracts. Says social work professor Ana Leon,
If a kid tells you he is thinking about suicide, contracts are not effective because you are not a mind reader. To do this without the involvement of parents really puts the child at risk because they are pretty isolated. There's nobody there to be a support system to figure out what should happen if they become suicidal, or if things change and the risk factors go up.
And psychologist Dr. Valerie McClain told My Fox Tampa Bay that if a child is suicidal, "from an ethical standpoint and a legal standpoint, that parent has a right to know." On the issue of contracts, she said, "They may say they're not going to hurt themselves but if you don't know for sure. It's good to, maybe, consult with a colleague, another mental health expert or another person who knows the person."
Leon adds that schools aren't always good at notifying parents when their kids are at risk — "historically, school systems have not wanted to look at these mental health issues because it has not been part of their domain, their primary mission." Given experts' criticisms of the school's handling of the situation, the Witsells may well have a case. And even if they don't win, hopefully their tragedy will serve as a spur for schools around the country to take mental health issues seriously — and to work together with families to resolve them.
Parents Sue School District After Teen Daughter's Suicide [Reuters]
Hillsborough Schools' Suicide Policy Questioned [Tampa Bay Online]
Was School At Fault In Suicide? [My Fox Tampa Bay]