Court absolves school officials of responsibility in student’s suicide
Ontario-Montclair School District officials acted appropriately in disciplining four students who skipped school to attend an immigration rally, even though one boy was so traumatized by threatened punishments that he committed suicide, a federal appeals court panel ruled Monday.
The case brought by the dead boy’s parents raised an array of questions about the students’ constitutional rights to attend the rally as an act of free expression and the latitude of DeAnza Middle School Vice Principal Gene Bennett in sanctioning the truant protesters.
After Bennett lectured the young teenagers, warning that they could go to Juvenile Hall for three years and expose their parents to monetary fines, Anthony Soltero, then a 14-year-old eighth-grader, shot himself to death with his stepfather’s rifle.
Soltero’s parents, Louise Corales and Jamie Soltero, as well as one of the other students, sued the school district, alleging intentional infliction of emotional distress.
The four students left the Ontario school without permission on March 28, 2006, to take part in a protest against impending changes to federal immigration laws.
Louise Corales said her son called her shortly before shooting himself to death March 30, saying that he was suspended from school and had been told by Bennett that he was going to jail.
U.S. District Judge Stephen G. Larson had dismissed the parents’ suit in 2007, prompting the appeal to the San Francisco-based U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
While determining the students’ action to have been an expression of opinion that could be protected by the 1st Amendment, the three-judge panel said the students were being punished for truancy, not for engaging in protected free speech.
The decision exonerated Bennett and another school official, Kathleen Kinley, of responsibility for Soltero’s suicide.
The decision stated that the tragic occurrence was “unforeseeable and extraordinary” but not the result of negligence or excessive punishment.
“Because Bennett’s statements could not be interpreted as intended to cause any unlawful injury to the students, they did not constitute a true threat of corporal punishment,” the appeals panel said.
The parents’ attorney, R. Samuel Paz, said he needed to further study the 9th Circuit opinion before advising his clients on whether to appeal.
“At this point I just have to deal with the sadness of them and figure out what is the right thing to do from here,” Paz said.
The opinion was written by Senior Circuit Judge Cynthia Holcomb Hall, an appointee of President Ronald Reagan, and joined by Circuit Judge Harry Pregerson, named to the bench by President Jimmy Carter, and visiting U.S. District Court Judge David Alan Ezra of Hawaii, another Reagan appointee.
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