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Lawsuit in teen's suicide lacks merit, Slippery Rock superintendent says

| Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, 12:43 a.m.

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.

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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 bbowling@tribweb.com.

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