Court says counselor should have told parent of suicide threat

October 30, 1991|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,Anne Arundel Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- School guidance counselors could be sued if they don't try to prevent a student's suicide, the Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.

The decision sends the case of a Kensington man, whose 13-year-old daughter died in an apparent murder-suicide pact in November 1988,back to Montgomery County Circuit Court for a trial.

Stephen Eisel had sued the school system, the superintendent, the principal and two guidance counselors at Sligo Middle School in Montgomery County because the counselors did not tell him that friends of Nicole Eisel had said she was discussing suicide.

Circuit Judge J. James McKenna dismissed the suit in June 1990, ruling that the counselors and school board had no duty to intervene.

But a unanimous Court of Appeals overturned that decision.

The court conceded that nothing in the law directs counselors to report such threats. Nonetheless, they should have passed on the information, the judges ruled.

"Considering the growth of this tragic social problem, we hold that school counselors have a duty to use reasonable means to attempt to prevent a suicide when they are on notice of a child or adolescent student's suicidal intent," wrote Judge Lawrence F. Rodowsky.

Brian J. Porter, a spokesman for the school system, said no one could comment on the court's ruling because they had not seen it.

According to court records, Nicole told friends in late October 1988 she intended to kill herself. The friends reported the conversations to their counselor, who relayed it to Dorothy Jones, Nicole's counselor.

Ms. Jones confronted Nicole, who denied making such statements. Neither counselor notified Mr. Eisel or the school administration.

A week later, Nicole and a friend went to Rock Creek Park with a .32-caliber semiautomatic pistol. They sat cross-legged facing each other. The friend shot Nicole in the head, then turned the gun on herself. Their bodies were discovered the next day.

In its opinion, Maryland's highest court noted that the county school system and the General Assembly had made suicide prevention a high priority. The schools even issued a memorandum instructing teachers to "tell others -- as quickly as possible" if they believe a student is contemplating suicide.

And although it acknowledged the state Youth Suicide Prevention School Programs Act does not specifically authorize suits against school officials, the opinion said holding them to a "common law duty of reasonable care to prevent suicides when they have evidence of a suicidal intent comports with the policy underlying the act."

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