By Sharyn L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter
CHEHALIS – The lawsuit against White Pass School District – sued by the family of a sophomore who committed suicide – is over, with a Lewis County Superior Court judge ruling this morning school officials had no duty to notify Brian Stephens’ family of a suicide note they learned of or a possible suicide pact between two students
Brian Stephens, 16, was found dead with a gunshot wound to his head, inside a Tacoma man’s vacation mobile home in Packwood in May 2009.
His grandmother Debbie Reisert, with whom he lived, never heard about the note until months afterward. She wasn’t called when the high school counselor brought her grandson into his office to ask him if he was suicidal.
Days before Brian’s death, one of his friends had taken 30 Ibuprofen pills one morning and then went to school. When the counselor learned of it, the boy was taken away in an ambulance to Morton General Hospital where he was treated and subsequently released.
A female classmate told counselors Brian had passed her a note in English class, writing that if his friend killed himself, he would too.
The wrongful death lawsuit filed last year by Brian’s family never went to trial.
Lewis County Superior Court Judge Richard Brosey today granted a summary judgement requested by the school district.
“Is there a duty in the first place?” Brosey asked lawyers this morning. “That’s the issue we’re dealing with today.”
Brosey said the answer was no, based on case law.
“If the court of appeals or the Supreme Court want to declare there is, that’s up to them,” he said.
Tukwila attorney Philip Talmadge who represented the White Pass School District said the district feels horrible about the tragic circumstances, but they are not legally culpable.
The school counselor talked to the young man and he denied he was suicidal, Talmadge said.
He said the grandmother claimed she had previously had a long conversation with the counselor, asking him to inform her if he noticed anything amiss. But the counselor Justin Neilson didn’t recall the conversation exactly the same way, he said.
“Before you can have liability, you have to have a duty, as a matter of law,” Talmadge said.
He said it’s a question for the legislature, should it want to make such laws. There are many variables that would need to be addressed, he said.
“The Idaho legislature did that,” he said.
The family attorney Kevin Coluccio said he doesn’t yet know if they will appeal.
“I think what’s disappointing to us, is the school district won’t be held accountable for withholding information about kids,” Coluccio said. “Because mom and grandmother didn’t have the information, they couldn’t take action.”
Coluccio said some changes have been made, in part due to efforts by his clients.
The governor recently signed legislation that requires suicide education training for educators and some notification requirements, he said.
He called Brian’s death, or any child to suicide, a great tragedy.
“My hope is that this caused them to re-evaluate, to take more seriously the threat of teen suicide,” Coluccio said.
For the in-depth story surrounding Brian Stephen’s death, read “Packwood teen’s suicide to be revisited, in court” from Sunday July 1, 2012, here