Shauntiana Stafford was a 17-year-old student at Flagler Palm Coast High School. She lived with her mother, Carissa Jackson, at Madison Green Apartments. On Jan. 9, 2019, she was Baker Acted after threatening to harm herself. Five days later, Stafford took her life at home.
Her mother claims Stafford had been bullied and harassed, and the school had not protected her. The district denies most of the allegations, or that school left her unprotected.
Thursday afternoon, Circuit Judge Terence Perkins will hold a brief status hearing on a wrongful death lawsuit Jackson filed at the end of August. Damages sought exceed $30,000.
Bullying issues are familiar concerns that frequently are discussed publicly in school board and other school-related meetings, but because of very strict confidentiality laws controlling student records, the discussions are almost always general, reactive to anecdotal issues or veiled claims that cannot be discussed in their specifics in the open, at least by school officials. At times parents and students are more forthcoming with details.
But a lawsuit alleging the wrongful death of a student from suicide–seemingly the first such in recent decades in Flagler–opens a rare window into bullying issues from the inside, potentially revealing in detail the psychological and mental context of a student in the weeks and months leading up to her death, her relationship with school staffers, and the district’s responses in all its intricacies (or lack thereof): matters of privacy that would have prevailed when a student is attending a school are lifted in court proceedings. The suit also implicitly compels a question from both sides, especially since the death did not take place on the FPC campus: where do school supervisory responsibilities end regarding a student’s psychological well-being in an environment of immersive social media and permeable boundaries between home and school?
That’s assuming the case goes to trial and a jury hears the two sides trying to convince its members of the more persuasive answer. Such civil suits rarely do, ending either in dismissals or out-of-court settlements along the way.
Stafford, the suit claims, “was bullied, tormented, and harassed on numerous occasions by fellow students,” the bullying alleging including constant insults about her appearance, “mocking her in front of her peers, pushing and kicking her, and other similar acts, including bullying via the use of social media and or electronic applications of devices.” Stafford and her mother reported her teachers, the principal (at the time the school was led by Bob Wallace, whose tenure lasted just that year), other administrators and authorities.
The suit claims none of her teachers took any action to stop or address the bullying and failed to investigate, report or document it, take steps to establish what effect the bullying was having or take steps to lessen the bullying. The suit lists six alleged failings on the district’s part, such as failing to expel or discipline Stafford’s tormentors. Stafford reported that even after informing school staff of the problem, the bullying continued and “increased in intensity resulting in an increased and additional impact on” her, “leading to her eventual suicide and death.”
The district has admitted that “some instances of alleged bullying and harassment were reported to the school district,” but it denies negligence or that it failed to meet its responsibilities toward Stafford. It also denies outright that she was bullied throughout the school year “on numerous occasions,” that she was physically attacked or vilified, including on social media.
The district in its answers admits that “the School Board had a duty of reasonable supervision to Shauntiana A. Stafford and other students while at school during school hours or at school sponsored activities,” but denies breaching that responsibility. The district denies that teachers and other staffers had neglected taking any action, and it rejects all six of the claim’s outlined failings. In its answer, the district is laying down a clear marker between what happens at school or at activities within the school’s purview and what happens beyond those, and at home, suggesting at least one line of defense: Stafford’s suicide at home was not the school’s doing. It does so explicitly, bluntly blaming Jackson for her daughter’s death. Put another way: “The School Board did not have a duty to Shauntiana A. Stafford to supervise all of her movements at all of the times.”
Court pleadings don’t mince words or couch blame in diplomatic language. It is war by other means, though the wording is not that of the local school board attorney’s. The district is represented by its insurer’s attorneys at the Dell Graham law firm in Gainesville. Jackson is represented by Morgan and Morgan, the Orlando law firm.
Providing a defense in the usual arid, impersonal language of court pleadings, the district argues that “The injuries and damages alleged to be suffered by [Stafford or her mother] were caused by persons and/or entities over whom [the school district] had no control or duty to control.” The discovery process, the district argues, may bring forward some of the people who bear that responsibility.” Since Jackson is suing on behalf of her daughter, she is the plaintiff. To that extent, the district’s answer blames her: At the time and place of the suicide, “Plaintiff herself was negligent,” the district argues. “Such negligence was either the sole legal cause or was a contributing cause of the action and injury and damages claimed” by Jackson.
Other defenses by the district seek to limit the damages incurred through allowable splits in civil court. For example, it’s possible for the jury to assign a percentage of the blame to the district, and the rest elsewhere. Damages would be awarded accordingly. That defense implicitly concedes that some responsibility lies with the district, though its claim of “sovereign immunity” (the doctrine that limits the extent to which public entities can be sued) further mitigates the damages sought, as the district sees it.
The long list of documents the district is seeking offers another glimpse at its possible strategy. Those include all medical records of the five years preceding Stafford’s death, including counseling records–not only hers, but also those of family members, Jackson’s included, along with Stafford’s cell phone records and all electronic devices she used. Many of the requested records may no longer be available, like the history of text and other similar-type messages Stafford exchanged with people.
The case is still in its early stages: none of the people who are expected to testify at trial, if it goes that far, have yet been deposed, and neither side has yet produced more than a handful of documents requested by each, though the documents that have been made part of the court file so far include Stafford’s diary. The last entry in the journal is reportedly of her telling her mom to help other people and not let what happened to her happen to anyone else.