Lawsuit in teen's suicide lacks merit, Slippery Rock superintendent says
Update: The Maxwells dropped their lawsuit on Dec. 11, 2012. The motion to voluntarily dismiss the case doesn't list any reason and Barbara Seman Ochs, their attorney, declined comment on the case.
The district, in court documents, denied that Tiffani Maxwell was subjected to a strip search.
Tiffani Maxwell feared she'd be held back a year when students falsely accused her of having drugs on a school bus, and Slippery Rock Area School District officials punished her without proof, her parents claim in a federal lawsuit.
High school Principal Kristie Shulsky subjected Tiffani, 16, to an ordeal that included a strip search, Maxwell's parents said. The next day, she took a gun and killed herself.
After their daughter's suicide on Jan. 15, 2011, Shane and Sandy Maxwell, said in a WPXI-TV interview that bullying by other students played a role in her death.
The lawsuit filed Monday against the school district and several school officials doesn't mention the word “bully,” but it claims Tiffani Maxwell's civil rights were violated by the strip search, and it blames the district for her death.
The district regards the lawsuit as meritless, according to a statement Superintendent Kathleen Nogay released on Tuesday.
“The district has not yet received a copy of the lawsuit which has been filed; however, based on what previously has been provided to the district, the district and its employees are confident that the allegations and claims lack any basis in fact or law,” she said.
Barbara Seman Ochs, one lawyer for the Maxwells, said that neither she nor the family would comment for this story. Maxwell's parents didn't return a call made to their residence.
The co-founder of an anti-bullying site named after Maxwell couldn't be reached for comment. Maxwell's mother is the other founder.
Several legal experts are familiar with cases in which parents sued districts for failing to stop bullying, but they said they know of no lawsuit like this.
Deborah Brake, a University of Pittsburgh law professor, said she doesn't know of any other lawsuit claiming a school's conduct resulted in a student committing suicide, though it is possible such a case exists.
The Supreme Court in 2009 ruled that strip searches by school officials are unconstitutional unless they have reason to believe the person is carrying a weapon or something else that endangers other students.
The lawsuit says that some Slippery Rock Area High School students claimed they saw Tiffani Maxwell with drugs on a school bus and then taunted her with text messages.
The lawsuit says Maxwell started feeling ill during her third-period gym class and her condition worsened during her fourth period. An unidentified classmate was helping her walk to the school nurse's office when Shulsky began screaming at Maxwell, the lawsuit says.
Shulsky ordered Maxwell to sit in a chair at the nurse's office until she confessed to using drugs, the lawsuit says. After Maxwell repeatedly denied using drugs, Shulsky called in a school nurse and conducted a strip search that didn't turn up any drugs, the lawsuit says.
Maxwell's mother drove her to school that morning, the lawsuit says.
Despite the lack of evidence, Shulsky ordered Maxwell's suspension, the lawsuit says. Maxwell was distraught because of the incident and because she believed the suspension would keep her from advancing to the next grade, the lawsuit says.
Brian Bowling is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-325-4301 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.