Vol. 17-006, July 24, 2017

(OAH Case No. 2016060721 (2017).)
The Gist
  • Student safety is always among school districts’ highest priorities.  Under certain circumstances, an employee who fails to appropriately comply with suicide prevention protocols may be subject to dismissal.

The Details
The school district developed and implemented a comprehensive suicide prevention policy and protocol and trained its staff regarding both.  Shortly thereafter, a 13-year-old student expressed a desire to die in a self-discovery questionnaire.  A counselor responded and completed a suicide evaluation with the student, finding his risk for suicide to be “moderate to severe.” 

After completing the evaluation, the counselor asked the student to sit in the counseling office waiting area while he attend a one-hour meeting with the principal on an unrelated matter.  The counselor notified a secretary of the student’s presence, but said nothing about his suicide risk.  After returning from the meeting, the counselor found the student seated in the waiting area, but went to his office and closed his door.  Minutes later, the school day ended and the student left the office unattended.  A search for the student involving the counselor and other staff members ensued.  During that search, the counselor engaged in unprofessional conduct by, among other things, blaming others for the student’s disappearance.  The student was found unharmed several hours later. 

Based on the counselor’s above-noted conduct, coupled with his lengthy history of unprofessional conduct, the District served him with dismissal charges.  The District alleged the counselor engaged in immoral and dishonest conduct, and that he persistently violated school laws. 

The CPC upheld the counselor’s dismissal noting that his disregard for the suicide prevention policy created a significant risk of harm to, “the student and his parent, the school and the District in that it could have resulted in the death or attempted suicide of a student.”  The CPC also found that the counselor’s conduct both before and during the incident constituted a persistent violation of school regulations.  The CPC unanimously held that dismissal was necessary to protect students, school employees, or others, and to further deter respondent from engaging in similar conduct in the future.

Practical Pointers
Recent tragic events have increased focus on suicide prevention policies and protocols.  This case underscores the importance of closely adhering to those policies and protocols and illustrates that CPCs may uphold severe discipline against those who fail to comply with them.  Any failure to implement those policies and protocols should be closely reviewed and, in cases like this one, wherein the certificated staff member has demonstrated a pattern of unprofessional conduct both before the breach and in responses related to it, dismissal may be an appropriate alternative.

Special Reminder
AB 2246 requires all school districts to adopt a suicide prevention policy that, among other things, addresses the needs of high-risk groups before the start of the 2017-18 school year.  The policy must address training for teachers who teach in seventh through twelfth grades.

Please note, nothing contained in the CPC Blog is intended to be legal advice.  Please feel free to contact any of our offices for additional information and/or consult legal counsel regarding any particular matters.