Georgia School District Not Held Liable for Student's Suicide

[author: Meghan Covert Russell]

This week the US District Court for the Northern District of Georgia ruled in favor of the Murray County School District on their motion for summary judgment in the case of Long v. Murray County School District. The case has garnered national attention due to its focus on bullying. Seventeen-year-old Tyler Lee Long ("Long"), who was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, was the victim of severe, nearly constant bullying at his Georgia high school and eventually committed suicide. Long's parents sued the Murray County School District alleging that their failure to intervene, investigate, correct, or train employees to adequately protect Tyler from bullying constituted deliberate indifference and was the cause of his decision to take his own life.

Long was subject to numerous instances of bullying throughout his time at Murray County High School, but often these instances were not observed by school staff nor reported to school staff. Long's parents did email school staff with concerns about their son and school officials did respond by disciplining harassers and taking measures to prevent future harm. However, Long's parents argued that the school's response failed to adequately address and stop the bullying.

Plaintiffs also alleged that the peer-on-peer harassment violated the ADA and Section 504 and that Long was discriminated against because of his disability. Although the Court determined that Plaintiffs could potentially show that Long was (1) disabled, (2) harassed due to a disability, (3) that the harassment denied Long equal access to education, and (4) that the appropriate school officials had actual notice of the harassment, they were unable to show that (5) the Defendant's actions rose to the level of deliberate indifference. According to the Court, "school officials will only be deemed deliberately indifferent if their response to the harassment or lack thereof is clearly unreasonable in light of the known circumstances." The Court noted that "although Plaintiffs establish that Defendants should have done more to address disability harassment, Plaintiffs fail to meet the high bar of deliberate indifference and demonstrate that Defendants' response was clearly unreasonable." The evidence showed that the District investigated and responded to each reported incident.

Although the District was not held legally liable for Long's death, the case is an important lesson to students and staff that bullying is very real danger that deserves serious attention in our schools. Students should be encouraged to report any instances of bullying they observe to school staff. School officials should actively investigate any reports of bullying and appropriately discipline students. Additionally, it should be noted that as in this case, students with disabilities are often the targets of bullying. If students with disabilities are being bullied, the student's IEP team may want to address this in the IEP, or create a safety plan for the student.   

The ruling is available in its entirety here.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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