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Hillsborough schools sued again over teen's suicide after sexting, bullying

Their daughter had said she wanted to kill herself, and they didn't know.

But a school counselor did.

Nearly three years later and after a failed federal lawsuit, the teen's parents still seek to hold the Hillsborough County School Board accountable.

In a wrongful-death lawsuit filed in Hillsborough Circuit Court last month, the parents of Hope Witsell blame local school officials for neglecting to ensure the safety of their daughter and only child on the day before she committed suicide at home.

At the time of her death, Hope was an eighth-grader at Shields Middle School in Ruskin.

The lawsuit faults the school district for not telling Charles and Donna Witsell about a September 2009 counseling session Hope had with Shields social worker Jody Orlando. During the session, she expressed suicidal thoughts and signed a "no-harm" contract. In the contract, Hope agreed to not attempt suicide and to call the counselor if she felt suicidal.

The next day, a Saturday, Hope hanged herself in the bedroom while her parents watched television downstairs.

Other students had bullied Hope, 13, after a sexting incident. She sent a cellphone photograph of her breasts to a crush — and then the nude photo circulated among other students. A lengthy Times story detailed how the fallout chipped away at the enthusiastic student who was a member of the FFA, formerly known as Future Farmers of America.

The school district has not commented on Hope's suicide or her interaction with school officials, citing student privacy laws.

For this article, school district spokeswoman Linda Cobbe declined to comment on the ongoing lawsuit but said the legal complaint includes inaccurate claims. She declined to elaborate.

Speaking generally about district policies, Cobbe said the School Board approved a bullying and violence prevention policy in December 2008. It followed a state law passed that year mandating that schools establish antibullying policies.

Guidance counselors and staff also receive training from psychological services for handling student suicide threats or attempts, Cobbe said.

The lawsuit accuses the school district of not following its procedures for suicide prevention and not properly assessing Hope's case.

The Witsells' attorney, Richard Alvarez, did not return a call for comment. The couple are seeking unspecified damages for Hope's death.

It's similar to a lawsuit the Witsells filed in federal court last year. U.S. District Judge Steven D. Merryday dismissed that case on March 5.

The federal lawsuit accused the school district of violating Hope's 14th Amendment rights, saying that the actions of school officials deprived her of her life without due process of the law.

But Merryday determined the school district had no constitutional obligation to protect Hope from self-harm outside the school. Nor did he find that the school'' policies or actions made her more vulnerable to harm.

"With the absence of finding a constitutional duty, and, consequently, with the absence of finding the violation of a constitutional right," Merryday wrote in the order's footnotes, "a discussion of the School Board's alleged deliberate indifference to an absent or hypothetical constitutional right proves awkward, irrelevant, and ultimately unnecessary."

Stephanie Wang can be reached at swang@tampabay.com or (813) 661-2443.

Hillsborough schools sued again over teen's suicide after sexting, bullying 05/03/12 [Last modified: Thursday, May 3, 2012 4:30am]
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