Parents of girl who hanged self sue school district

April 14th, 2011 by Staff

TAMPA – The parents of a 13-year-old girl who hanged herself after months of classmates’ taunts are suing the Hillsborough County school district for not doing more to help.

In a federal lawsuit filed Monday, attorney Richard Alvarez argues the school district violated the civil rights of Donna and Charles Witsell and their daughter.

Hope Witsell was an eighth-grader at Beth Shields Middle School in Ruskin in the fall of 2009, when a teacher noticed shallow cuts on her thigh and sent her to the principal’s office.

Hope had been experiencing “extraordinary ridicule and harassment from other students because of a prior, juvenile indiscretion.” Teachers, administrators and other school officials knew what was happening, the lawsuit states.

The prior school year, Hope had texted a partially nude picture of herself to a boy she liked. The photo was passed along to other classmates.

According to the lawsuit, Hope received “involuntary mental health counseling” on Sept. 11 from school social worker Jody Orlando, a woman Hope had never met.

No one else was there, and Orlando did not notify the school psychologist, principal or Hope’s parents, according to the lawsuit.

Instead, Orlando gave the girl a “no-harm contract,” in which Hope agreed to not “attempt suicide or die by suicide” and to call Orlando if she had suicidal thoughts, the lawsuit says.

In an interview with The Tampa Tribune last year, Donna Witsell said she didn’t learn about the contract until a few days after finding her daughter’s body in her bedroom.

Witsell said school officials told her a social worker from the school tried to call the family the day Hope signed the contract.

But Witsell, a 49-year-old mail carrier in Wimauma, said there was no record of the call and no explanation of the no-harm contract.

A year and a half later, Witsell still wants to know what happened to her little girl and how to keep it from happening to someone else’s child.

“Not only me, but other parents are being misled and misguided,” Witsell said in an interview Tuesday. “We have got to do something to make a change. We’ve got to do something.

“Our motivation is for change, for responsibility, for a protocol put in place that they have to follow through – have to. It’s for our kids.”

School district spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said she could not comment on pending litigation, including whether the district has a policy or procedures specific to no-harm contracts.

The district does have a policy that addresses student suicide with a five-step approach that includes risk assessment, communication with appropriate parties and follow-up.

“All school personnel should be alert to the student who exhibits signs of unusual depression or who threatens or attempts suicide,” the policy reads.

“Any such signs or the report of such signs from another student or staff member should be taken with the utmost seriousness.”

Orlando, a licensed school social worker hired by the district in 2002, could not be reached for comment. She was never disciplined for her actions and has since transferred to another school, Cobbe said.

Orlando applied for an exemption from the district that Cobbe said prevented her from releasing the name of that school.

In past evaluations, Orlando’s supervisors described her as an excellent social worker, devoted to her job and students.

“The service she provides our students and their families is outstanding,” wrote the principal of Clair Mel Elementary during the 2006-2007 school year.

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