Could an Educational Agency Be Held Liable for a Student’s Suicide by Failing to Provide Necessary Accommodations and Supports?  One Court Suggests It’s Possible. 

On July 29, 2019, the U.S. District Court, Northern District of California, denied a school district’s motion to dismiss a parent’s claim of negligence involving allegations that failure to implement Section 504 accommodations prompted the student to take his own life. Whooley v. Tamalpais Union High School District, 74 IDELR 258 (2019).

Student was in 12th grade and qualified as a student with a disability under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act due to processing deficits and anxiety. His Section 504 plan included numerous accommodations, including one-on-one checks with teachers and extra time on tests. The parent alleged that Student became increasingly overwhelmed by mounting pressure from school to achieve and maintain a high grade point average, attain high scores on the ACT or SAT college entrance exams, and to complete early enrollment applications for colleges.

Parent alleged that this stress was compounded by the district’s employees’ failure to implement Student’s Section 504 accommodations on numerous occasions. For example, Parent alleged that Student’s Section 504 plan required placement in a separate room for testing, but Student was forced to take the test in the school’s gym with the other students.

Based upon these allegations, and analysis of the legal standard for determining liability for a suicide, the court allowed the case to proceed to determine whether the district’s negligence in failing to implement the Section 504 plan caused the Student to suffer a mental condition in which he could not control his suicidal impulses.

The Whooley case is a tragic reminder to educational agencies to ensure implementation of required accommodations for a student with a disability. Here are a few practice tips to help ensure proper implementation:

1. Distribute Section 504 plans to all necessary staff. Do not be so concerned about confidentiality that you do not provide a 504 plan to appropriate individuals such as substitutes or bus drivers.

2. Focus on clarity when drafting accommodations so staff understand exactly what he or she is supposed to do.

3. Remind staff that they have an obligation to provide all accommodations identified in a student’s Section 504 plan regardless of whether they believe those accommodations are necessary, appropriate, and/or fair to other students. If an accommodation may no longer be necessary or appropriate, a 504 team meeting should be convened to discuss and make such a determination.

4. Do not wait for the student to request the accommodations listed on a Section 504 Plan. It is the school’s obligation to ensure that the accommodations are provided.