Brian Edward Stephens: February 11, 1993 - May 19, 2009
By Sharyn L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter
CHEHALIS – Three years ago, a student at White Pass High School took 30 Ibuprofen pills one morning and then went to school.
When his school counselor found out about it, the boy was taken away in an ambulance to Morton General Hospital where he was treated and subsequently released.
Days later, a buddy of his who was also a student at the school attempted suicide, and succeeded.
The 16-year-old, Brian Stephens, had less than a week earlier passed a note to a girl in English class writing that if his friend killed himself, he would too. The girl told two school counselors.
His grandmother, with whom he lived, never heard about the note until months afterward. She wasn’t called when high school counselor Justin Neilson brought her grandson into his office to ask him if he was suicidal.
Stephens’ family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the school district, saying a grave lack of professional judgement led the school counselor to dismiss clear signs Stephens was at risk for suicide, that the district did not provide its employees with mechanisms to respond to such situations and that it failed to have a comprehensive school suicide prevention plan.
“Our position is the school district did not address the risks they should have done with Brian,” the family attorney Kevin Coluccio said.
Teen suicide is a huge issue across the country, and it’s an issue that schools need to deal with, Coluccio said.
It’s is the third leading cause of death among young people ages 10 to 24, according to the attorney.
The family, through its attorney, claims the school had a duty to notify his parents the teen was talking about suicide at school.
A key part of student safety is proper parent notification practices, the lawyers write in their filing. If a student says they’re not feeling well, parents are called; if they are behind on their vaccinations or not showing up for classes, parents are contacted, the lawyers write.
The school district’s attorney says it does not have such a duty.
Its responsibility is only to protect students in its custody from reasonably anticipated dangers, according to the lawyer, Jerry J. Moberg.
The school district is represented by Moberg as well as James E. Baker at Jerry J. Moberg and Associates in Euphrata. Also representing them is Tukwila attorney Philip Talmadge.
All that remain of the school officials who were involved in 2009 are three of the five school board members. The school district superintendent Rich Linehan, the high school principal and the two school counselors have since left the district.
White Pass Junior-Senior High School, with about 180 students, is in Randle.
Today, Stephens’ grandmother Debbie Reisert still gets sick talking about it, a loss she says has left a gaping hole in their small family.
“I’m really angry about it,” Reisert said. “But I really haven’t talked about it openly in the town.”
Reisert runs a lodging business on Cannon Road in Packwood. She worries about the impact news of the lawsuit and its details could have on the kids involved, she said; the then-16-year-old friend of her grandson who attempted suicide, the girl who told the school counselor about the note.
Both the current White Pass School District superintendent and the school board president declined to comment, referring questions to their attorneys. The lawyers representing the school district have not returned calls for comment.
A claim filed in January asking $3.5 million was denied. The lawsuit was filed at the end of March in Lewis County Superior Court.
“The thing that’s so frustrating for us is he made an assessment that’s so obviously wrong and didn’t give us a chance to intervene,” Reisert said.
She feels like her only grandson would still be alive, if the school had simply picked up the phone and called, she said.
“Brian was an amazing human being,” Reisert said. “He was really, really intelligent. He was very articulate.”
The oldest of three children, he tended toward the Buddhist philosophy, was funny and was the kind of kid that always helped out the underdog, she said.
His mother took him out of Gig Harbor High School his sophomore year and sent him to live with her in Packwood after he got in trouble with some teens who threw something off a freeway overpass at a vehicle, according to Reisert.
Reisert said she spent about 30 minutes with the school counselor when she enrolled her grandson, explaining about his pending court case, and her concerns about the differences in schools.
She asked him to let her know if he was “hanging out with trouble,” she said, to call if he noticed anything amiss.
It was only about six weeks later he was dead.
Court documents and reports from the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office offer details of the week in May 2009 that ended in the death of the White Pass High School sophomore.
It was Thursday May 21, 2009 when Stephens was found with a gunshot wound to his head, inside a Tacoma man’s vacation mobile home on Richer Drive in Packwood, three days after he went missing from his grandmother’s home nearby.
The sheriff’s office investigation gives the following account of what transpired during the previous seven days:
One of Stephens’ female classmates was among the many students interviewed by detective Bruce Kimsey.
She told Kimsey of the note Stephens had written her, saying he never explained why he wrote it.
A 16-year-old Packwood boy Stephens had known since preschool said he and Stephens recently had conversation about how they would kill themselves if they were ever to do so. They were walking around Hinkle Tinkle Falls behind the boy’s house.
On Friday May 15, 2009, that boy took 30 Ibuprofen pills and then went to school.
After he was sent to the hospital, the girl went to the school counselor with the information about Stephens’ note. Several of the students were talked to at school that day about the suicide attempt.
The counselor Neilson told a deputy he then questioned Stephens about committing suicide.
“(Stephens) had replied he was not going to harm himself and did not feel like harming himself in any way,” the deputy wrote.
Over the weekend, her grandson was upset about his friend’s suicide attempt, and some of the other kids seemed to blame him for some reason, according to his Reisert.
Stephens had talked about running away back to Gig Harbor, according to some of the students.
On Monday May 18, 2009: Stephens grades came in the mail, they weren’t good.
“The thing that’s really difficult for me is I got angry at him that day,” Reisert said. “He got bad grades, he wasn’t turning in his homework. I yelled at him and he took off.”
According to Sandra Zacher, a grade school teacher in the district, Stephens had come looking for her son who wasn’t home that afternoon. She said he hung his head down and walked away.
A runaway report was filed that night, a deputy went to the childhood friend’s house on Richer Drive, where he learned the two boys had recently discussed suicide, and listened to a voice message Stephens had left on his friend’s phone, saying he was going to “do it.”
About 4 o’clock the following morning, Zacher’s doorbell rang, and she went to the front door and saw no one was there.
Reisert and Stephens’ mother, Allison Tinney, continued to look for the teenager.
On Thursday May 21, 2009: They went to the friend’s home, and learned from his mother, Zacher, she had noticed the lights on the previous few days at a nearby vacation mobile home.
The three walked over there, Tinney saw her son’s backpack through a window, went inside and found her son dead on a bed with a .22 Winchester long rifle.
The school district superintendent and high school counselor Neilson were among those who arrived at the mobile home as deputies investigated.
A suicide note was found on the back of a piece of homework in Stephens’ backpack. It contents were blacked out in the copy of the report released by the sheriff’s office.
Court documents show his date of death as Tuesday May 19, 2009.
The suicide seemingly came out of nowhere, according to his grandmother.
“He wasn’t even moody ever,” Reisert said. “Brian was just really even all the time, always smiling.
Reisert said she thinks it was a like a fleeting idea he acted on more or less spontaneously.
The lawsuit names as the plaintiffs Stephens’ mother, as well as William Boehm, personal representative of the estate of Brian Stephens.
It is being handled by Coluccio at the Seattle firm of Strittmatter, Kessler, Whelan and Coluccio as well as the Law Office of Skip Simpson in Texas.
Paige Tangney, a past president of the Washington State Association of School Psychologists who has worked in public schools for more 30 years, was asked by the family’s lawyers to evaluate the circumstances of Stephen’s death.
At a minimum, the counselor should have kept Stephens in his office after they spoke about the note he wrote and then picked up the phone to call his grandmother, according to Tangney.
Tangney writes in her filed declaration that a reasonable standard of care is to take any threat of self harm by a student seriously. She describes the protocols many schools have adopted for dealing with potentially suicidal students.
If a student is determined to be a low risk, the parent can advise about the next steps, and is asked to be home when the student gets home from school, Tangney writes. If medium or high risk, the parent is asked to come to school and pick them up.
Tangney writes it appeared Neilson conducted an informal assessment and concluded the teen was either at low risk or not at risk.
Any one of several items the counselor learned, coupled with the note that threatened suicide, made him a significant risk however, she wrote.
“To make a judgement that a student is not a significant suicide risk when they have stated to another student they are going to commit suicide if another student does, the other student has made an attempt, and he has additional risk factors, constitutes, in my opinion, a grave lack of professional judgement as a school counselor,” Tangney writes.
The school district’s attorney, in an answer filed in early May, denies the warning signs were clear or that the counselor failed to properly assess Stephens.
Also, state employees are immune from liability pursuant to a professional judgement doctrine, the district’s lawyer wrote.
“If there was an error in judgement on the part of a professional employee of the school district, it was an honest error in judgment arrived at within the standard of care the school district employee was obliged to follow,” the attorney wrote.
There is currently no date scheduled for when the parties might meet in court.