The Mares family of Lenexa, Kansas:


Top Left: Jason (left) and Justin


Bottom Left:  Justin (in back) and Jason.


“They were as close as two brothers can be,” says Barb Mares.



Right: The Mares brothers. Clockwise from top: Jon, Joe, Jeremy, Justin and Jason

A duty to act:  Mares v. Shawnee Mission Schools

“We are talking about the health and welfare of a child,

not whether or not they can read Shakespeare.”

    — Johnson County District Judges James Vano

OLATHE, Kan — In January 2006, Barbara Mares of Lenexa, Kan., filed a wrongful death lawsuit public school officials in the affluent suburb of Johnson County, Kansas. The suit alleged that untrained and incompetent school personnel were partially responsible for the suicide deaths of her sons in 2003.


The sudden dismissal of the Mares lawsuit after

a secret out-of-court “settlement.”  CLICK here.

 

    The defendant was the Shawnee Mission School District, the largest of the county’s six public school systems.  Jason Mares, 16, committed suicide while a student at Shawnee Mission West High School. Justin Mares, 18, committed suicide the following September after completing his senior year at West. Both boys hanged themselves, from different trees, at nearby Shawnee Mission Park.

 

    In August 2006, District Court Judge James Vano ruled that the statute of limitations had expired on Jason’s suicide but ordered trial to proceed on the allegations involving Justin’s death. Vano agreed to hear plaintiff argument that the school’s handling of Jason’s suicide may have contributed to the subsequent suicide of his older brother.

   

    The Mares suicides occurred during the administration of West High principal Karl Krawitz, who had been publicly criticized for his handling of earlier student suicides. Those included the deaths of Mark Huston in 1995 and Adam Wilcutt’s in 1998.  (See: “Angels in the Park” on this Web site)

 

    All six of Johnson County school districts had been rocked by student suicides and attempted suicides during the 1990s. During the 15-year period from 1990 to 2004, 106 young persons in the community died by suicide. Mental health experts believe there are 10 to 20 attempted suicides for each one completed.

 

    The Mares family argued that Principal Krawitz and the Shawnee Mission school system recklessly ignored national school standards designed to prevent or reduce student suicides. The plaintiff’s case relied heavily on “best practice” guidelines published by the National Association of School Psychologists and the deposition testimony of Scott Poland, the NASP’s leading authority on school norms for handling student tragedies.

 

    If the case goes to a jury trial, it is expected to stir national discussion about the role of public schools in the nation’s long-running campaign to reduce youth suicide. Among the broader issues raised by the Mares lawsuit:L 

 

• Have American schools heeded the warnings of mental health experts about the risk of depression and mental illness among students?

 

• Have communities responded to national recommendations — issued repeatedly during the past three decades by numerous national commissions and task forces — that local schools install modern suicide-prevention programs and written protocols for the handling of such tragedies?

 

• Do schools have a duty to identify and seek assistance for students who might be suicidal?

 

* * *

 

    In defense petitions, the Shawnee Mission School District offered its response to such questions.  The district’s defense team argued that Kansas schools have no obligation to install formal suicide prevention systems and, therefore, no legal duty to suicidal students or their families.  Even if it were shown that Principal Krawitz and his staff took no action before or after the Mares suicides, the defense argued, the school system cannot be found negligent.

 

    “Even when assuming for argument’s sake that the SMSD was negligent in how it treated plaintiff’s sons,” the defense stated, “such negligence would not make SMD liable for their suicide as a matter of law because it was not the cause of their death. Simply put, the sons’ conduct was an intervening act that negates any liability on SMSD’s part.”

 

    Additionally, the defense team has cited the doctrine of “intervening force.”  As applied to the Mares case, such argument holds that a troubled student obstructs the school’s ability to intervene by choosing to commit suicide away from school premises.

 

An unforeseeable tragedy?

 

    Common law once viewed suicide as a crime. Thus, courts held that the liability of a defendant — even a reckless and negligent defendant —  ended with the criminal act of suicide. The decision to commit suicide is considered an “intervening force.” That is, one’s decision to commit suicide is not the foreseeable result of any alleged negligence.  Pay close attention to the word “foreseeable.”

 

    Suicide is no longer considered or classified as a crime. The FBI doesn’t publish suicide data and many local law enforcement agencies don’t even track it. The police response to a suicide generally terminates, abruptly, once homicide or insurance fraud is ruled out.  “We aren’t interested in why it happened,” a veteran Kansas City detective told me, “only that it happened. Once we confirm that it was, in fact, a suicide — case closed.”

 

    Taking one’s life is no longer a crime but the “intervening force” doctrine lives on. What it means and how it applies depends on which legal expert one consults.  In general, American courts have been reluctant to blame defendants — even negligent, reckless defendants — for someone else’s decision to commit suicide. A series of bonehead decisions by others — relatives, doctors, school counselors — may have culminated in the tragedy but the final choice about life or death, jurists argue, breaks the line of causation. Such legal reasoning holds that no one can be held responsible for a suicide because the victim “freely chose” to kill himself, a decision that can be neither foreseen nor prevented.

 

    Thus, the legal bar is high — very high — when it comes to holding school counselors or school psychologists liable for a suicide.  Courts have found schools negligent in a number of suicide cases, but only when the threat of a suicide was obvious and clearly imminent. Generally, schools are held liable only if it can be shown that school personnel had ignored unambiguous evidence of a student’s intent to commit suicide.

 

    In Wyke v. Polk County Schools (1997), Florida school employees caught a junior high student trying to hang himself in a school bathroom. Twice. The information was relayed to the school principal, who chose not notify the boy’s parents or medical authorities. Instead, the principal invited the boy to his office to read passages from Scripture. A few days later, the boy committed suicide at home.

 

No crystal ball needed

 

    In its ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals concluded that “unforeseeable intervening force” is a legal tautology.  All intervening forces are unforeseeable — unless the evidence shows otherwise.

 

    “If the intervening cause,” the Court ruled, “is one which in ordinary human experience is reasonably to be anticipated, or one which the defendant has reason to anticipate under the particular circumstances, the defendant may be negligent, among other reasons, because of failing to guard against it.”

 

    “The workings of the human mind are truly an enigma,” the Court concluded, “but we do not believe (and neither did the jury) that a prudent person would have needed a crystal ball to see that [the child] needed help and that if he didn't get it soon, he might attempt suicide again.”

 

     In other words, the question is not whether Justin Mares committed suicide. He did. The question is whether his depression and suicidal thoughts should have been anticipated by trained school professionals. Did they spot the warning signs and, if so, what was done about it?

 

    Wyke v. Polk involved a 1989 suicide. A great deal has been learned, and published, since then about how to prevent youth suicide — about the warning signs. About the obligation of communities and school systems to install suicide prevention programs.

 

    On top of that, Principal Krawitz and Johnson County school administrators were hardly strangers to the issue. After more than 100 youth suicides in the community since 1990, did anyone need a crystal ball?

 

Breaking new ground

 

    This issue — whether suicide is preventable — is where previous court cases have left off, and where Mares v. Shawnee Mission School District begins. If the “intervening force” doctrine is outdated thinking, then Mares may break new ground.

 

    It is widely understood — among mental health experts as well as educators — that suicidal children do not publicly broadcast their intentions. Many, perhaps most, do not share their fears and worries with grownups.  Over and over again, the nation has been told that it is possible to save these children only if those around them — parents, teachers, friends — know the warning signs and how to spot them.  And what to do next.

 

    Were Jason and Justin Mares so obviously “at risk” that someone at the school — experienced counselors or school psychologists — should have intervened? Is it reasonable to assume that a teenager who’d just lost a brother to suicide might need a little extra attention and counseling?  Should school officials simply assume that the child’s suffering is a private, family matter and that the parents know what to do?

 

    Lastly, the school district bolsters its defense by pointing out (see Chronology below) that Justin Mares’s suicide occurred off school premises. But the off-premises defense may force plaintiff counsel, or the judge, to beg for clarification. Was Justin’s death an “intervening force” because it was a suicide or because it happened off school grounds?  If “intervening force” is the defense, what difference does it make where the tragedy occurred?  One can only wonder how school’s lawyers would interpret “intervening force” had Justin hanged himself at school.

  

    The plaintiff petitions in Mares suggest that the defense misses the point. Regardless of how, or where, Justin Mares died, school personnel stood by and did nothing as the boy sank into a dangerous, fatal depression in the weeks after his younger brother’s death. Expert witnesses for the plaintiff (see Chronology below) will argue that, for this reason alone, the school acted incompetently.

 

    This is why some observers feel the Shawnee Mission School District will settle the case and avoid a trial. Even if it wins the legal battle, the school district’s reputation would be severely disfigured during a courtroom war of words.

 

    A nasty trial could leave the community wondering about which poses the greatest threat — mental illness, or a school system whose managers believe they have no responsibility for the welfare and safety of suffering children?

 

The Stakes

 

    If the Mares case goes to trial, many will be watching. This horrific tragedy forces one to confront the two competing mindsets about society’s obligation to the most fragile and frightened among us.

 

    Theory #1 — Suicide is the preventable outcome of a treatable disease. The technology exists to save the victims, so communities and community institutions are morally bound to implement those technologies. Whether we like it or not.

 

    Theory #2 —  Suicide is not preventable.  Thus, no one — certainly not public institution dealing with children — has a responsibility to prevent it or even try to prevent it.

 

     If Theory #1 prevails, then schools have the same duty regarding mental health as they do regarding any other health issue. There’s a reason that schools are required to hire school nurses, check vaccination records and offer nutrition and wellness programs. Schools aren’t just about academics. They are about a child’s entire well-being.

 

     If theory #2 prevails, however, mental health experts have it all wrong. Americans don’t believe mental illness is a real disease. They believe that suicide only happens to (a) pathetic, star-crosssed humans born with a malignancy of the brain that dooms them to a tragic end, or (b) selfish cowards whose misery can be traced to poor upbringing and lack of spiritual guidance. In either case, the mental health of children is an unreasonable burden to place upon our over-worked and under-paid teachers and counselors.

 

     According to the court documents, the defense in Mares aligned itself with Theory #1.

 

Mares V. SMSD:  A Chronology

 

[Text preceded with the initials “DVC” is the editorial commentary of journalist-author David Chartrand, based upon independent research and interviews.]

 

Thursday, Feb.  20, 2003 — Jason Mares, 16, leaves Shawnee Mission West High School around 10 am and drives to a hardware stare to buy a rope. He is found later in the day, hanging from a tree in nearby Shawnee Mission Park. He leaves a note saying he “hated” Shawnee Mission West High School, and lists the names of three teachers who allegedly taunted or abused him. “I wish they were dead like me,” Jason writes. “Why couldn’t they keep to themselves, these bitches! I was hoping I could get a gun and kill them (the teachers) but I never found one.” He adds: “People say that school is your life and future. I hated school, therefore, I hated my life.”

 

DVC:  During 2005, I made numerous attempts to interview the three teachers named in the note. All three women were still still teaching at West High at the time. All three refused to talk and asked me not to contact them again.

 

Jason’s note expressed no ill feelings about his family or siblings. “You guys weren’t the problem,” Jason writes. “I love you guys very much and you guys did your best to help me and cause me to be successful.”

 

Friday, Feb. 21  — Johnson County Park Rangers, who discovered Jason’s body, arrive at SM West early in the morning and meet with Principal Krawitz. The rangers also ask about the suicide note and Jason’s allegations about the teachers. Krawitz promises to look into it. By around noon, according to park rangers, Krawitz called back to report that he had conducted “an investigation” into the suicide note and “he said there was nothing to it.” Police and school officials apparently conclude the note was the angry, nonsensical ramblings of a disturbed child and drop the matter.

 

DVC: The district attorney’s office and Shawnee Mission School Board members told me they were never notified of the Mares tragedies or the contents of Jason’s suicide note. Neither the DA’s office nor the Mares family was contacted by the Kansas Child Death Review Board, which is charged with investigating the deaths of all minors in the state. Officials with the Child Death Review Board, refused to discuss the case, saying all of its records are confidential and exempt from the states Open Records Act.

 

In the days following Jason’s death, Mares family members claim they made several attempts to meet with Principal Krawitz to get an explanation for Jason’s accusations about the three teachers. In a meeting with Barb Mares’s sister, Joanne, Krawitz refused to discuss the tragedy or permit the family to meet with the teachers named in the suicide note.  “He told us to get an attorney,” Joanne said.

 

According to relatives and classmates — and based upon a review of the funeral home guest signature book — a large crowed of classmates and friends turned out for Jason’s wake. So many students want to attend that someone at West arranged for a school bus to shuttle mourners from school grounds to the Amos Family Funeral Home.

 

DVC:   In interviews with me, Krawitz said that Jason Mares had few friends at the school and that “very few people” attended the wake. Krawitz said that school staff attended.  Others tell a different story. Relatives and classmates insist that a large number of students attended the funeral, so many  that the school arranged for a bus to shuttle mourners to and from the funeral home.

The funeral home’s  signature book shows a large number of guest signatures — but none  by Krawitz or anyone else identifying themselves as school representatives.  The funeral home received a flower arrangement and sympathy card from the West High staff.

 

March 2003 — Justin Mares, 18, moves back home to Johnson County to live with his grieving family.

 

DVC:  According to a girlfriend and relatives, Justin began making trips to Shawnee Mission Park immediately upon returning home, in search of the tree where Jason died. The girlfriend recalls Justin openly discussing his own suicidal thoughts and blaming himself for his younger brother’s death. “He felt he shouldn’t have moved away during senior year, that he should have been there to help Jason with his troubles at school.”

 

Justin Mares, like his brothers, attended Shawnee Mission West. However, he  moved to Michigan to do senior year in  small town near relatives.  Barb Mares said that Justin, like Jason, had become disenchanted with West High and wanted a less stressful senior year.  A West High transcript kept by Mrs. Mares shows that Justin was re-enrolled at West by late March,  less than a month after Jason’s suicide.

 

The Mares lawsuit alleges — and defense petitions do not contest — that counselors at West High never contacted Justin, or the family, to offer counseling or support in the weeks and months after Jason’s suicide.

 

May 2003 — Shawnee Mission West school officials advise Justin Mares that, due to his out-of-state transcript, he has insufficient hours to graduate with his SM West senior class.  A despondent and angry Justin finishes his senior year without a diploma.

 

Justin continues making trips to Shawnee Mission Park to locate the tree where his brother died. Park rangers claim they refused to identify the tree and urged the boy to seek counseling.

 

DVC:  County Park Police Chief Ralph Hays told me in an interview that he remembers calling the Mares home, warning family members of Justin’s attempt to locate Jason’s tree.  Both Barb Mares and Stacie Peden, Justin’s girlfriend, acknowledge they were aware of Justin’s trips to the park. However, neither was aware that such behavior was dangerous.  “I didn’t know anything about suicide or any of this,” Barb Mares told me.  “I was ignorant. I thought, well, maybe it was healthy for him to go out there. You know, like visiting a grave. Nobody from the school ever met with me or gave me any advice. I had no idea what to do. I wanted help but shut us out. They didn’t want to talk to me, especially after Jason’s death.”

 

Sept. 12, 2003 — Justin Mares hangs himself in Shawnee Mission Park — not at Jason’s tree but in a tree not far from it.

 

“Since the day Jay left us I’ve wanted to join him,” Justin writes in his final note. “I can’t continue my life knowing he is all alone. … When he left us I know I died that day as well and knew I would never come back to life.”

 

Like Jason, Justin writes nothing but loving comments about his family. “Mom, you have done so much for us. I don’t even know where to begin. I’m sorry. You guided us all on the right path and have put yourself through so much just for our sake. You are as close to perfect as anyone can get to being the best mother. But you can’t do everything for us. We all need to make our own choices and this is the choice I made. I’m just so frustrated with life. I’m going nowhere but down. I just feel horrible. I’m tired of fighting and I’m ready to go back to sleep, back to my dream.”

 

As with Jason’s suicide six months earlier, neither the district attorney nor the State Child Death Review Board contacted the family about the circumstances of Justi Mares’s suicide.

 

September 2005 — Jean Ann Uvodich, the Olathe attorney representing the Mares family, sends a letter notifying the Shawnee Mission School District of the intent to file a wrongful death lawsuit in connection with the deaths of Jason, 16, and Justin, 18. The notice alleges that Jason’s suicide was the result of abuse by students and teachers, and that Justin’s suicide was the result of the school’s failure to offer counseling and other intervention service to Justin after his brother’s death.

 

Among the plaintiff’s demands is that the school district implement a modern suicide education, prevention and training program.

 

January 2006 — Plaintiff attorney Uvodich files a wrongful death lawsuit against the school district on behalf of the Mares. The case is assigned to District Judge James Vano.

 

The case number is:  06CV00160

An on-line log of the case activity can be accessed at www.jococourts.org/civroa.aspx


 The lawsuit seeks unstipulated monetary damages.

 

Spring and summer  2006 — Lawyers for the school district file petitions asking Judge Vano for summary dismissal of the lawsuit.

 

In essence, summary dismissal is a finding that, regardless of the facts, the plaintiff has no grounds for suing the defendant. It’s like slamming your finger in the door of your Camry and then suing the auto manufacturer. No one doubts your pain but it wasn’t Toyota’s fault.

 

In its defense petitions, the school district offers a sweeping defense of “no responsibility” for the Mares suicides — or any student tragedy that occurs off school premises.  Rather than debate the plaintiff regarding Principal Krawitz’s handling of the Mares suicides or the allegations about improper staff training, the defense reiterates its position that the school system “owed no duty to (Barbara Mares) or to her deceased son.”

 

The defense argues that it would be “an intolerable burden” to hold a school system liable for a tragedy that occurs off school premises. The defense adds:

 

“Even if one were to assume SMSD teachers verbally and emotionally abused plaintiff’s sons, it does not follow that they are liable for the eventual suicide.  It is respectfully submitted that it is not an ordinary and natural phenomena that a student, even when emotionally abused, chooses to take his own life.”

 

As for the older brother’s suicide, the defense petition states: “Plaintiff will be unable to demonstrate under any set of facts in this case that SMSD was a substantial factor towards Justin’s suicide. Actually, the facts tend to point to the exact opposite conclusion, that it was Justin’s own grief with the loss of his brother Jason that caused him to kill himself, not the actions of SMSD.”

 

Aug. 23, 2006 — Judge Vano rejects the school district’s request for summary dismissal of the Mares lawsuit. He sets a tentative trial date for June 2007 on the wrongful death lawsuit involving the September 2003 suicide of Justin Mares.

 

However, Vano rules that damages may be sought only in the case of Justin Mares, the older brother. The judge rules that the lawsuit was filed several months after the statute of limitations had expired on the earlier suicide of Jason Mares.

 

Midway through the hearing, it was apparent that Judge Vano had quickly grasped the stakes involved. The “it-happened-off-premise” defense creates a circular argument that some find hard to swallow.  

 

During his oral presentation, Defense attorney Michael Seck cites a number of court rulings to bolster his “no duty/off premise/intervening force” defense.  Judge Vano responds that Seck’s citations do not involve schools. States require children to attend school, the judge says, and grant schools the power to act as "in loco parentis" guardians of those children.

 

Defense attorney Seck repeats that the suicide occurred off campus. The judge responds that schools are required to hire counselors and psychologists to address a variety of emotional issues involving how children cope with pressures and decisions — not just on campus but in the real world.

 

Then this exchange, reprinted verbatim from the court transcript:

 

JUDGE:  “That doesn't just deal with whether somebody is having a problem, answering a math problem, but deal with social issues that attend most high school kids, for instance, dating problems. School psychologists deal with all those issues.”

 

ATTORNEY SECK:  “I'm quite certain they do.”

 

JUDGE:  “Outside of the school.”

 

SECK:  “The problem is once they leave the campus we have no control over them. We cannot do anything and are not required to do anything by law to do something off campus to deal with that situation. As tragic as this case is, that is the necessary reality of running a school. You cannot be responsible for kids off the campus."

 

JUDGE:  “Not required to do anything off campus.  That's kind of a watershed question here, isn't it?  If you knew that you had a troubled kid whose brother committed suicide and took no action whatsoever to notify the parents, but you do take action to notify parents if a kid is failing in their English class, isn’t there some incongruity there about your duty to notify? We are talking about the health and welfare of a child, not whether or not they can read Shakespeare.”

 

SECK:  “I understand that, your honor. I understand your position on that.”

 

JUDGE:  “In this case, there is nothing the school district claimed it did at all. None of these uncontroverted facts of the school district has established they did anything at all.”

 

SECK:  “No question in this case, the school psychologist was not involved with either Jason or Justin.”

 

VANO:  “Nobody took any steps, at least from your statement of facts. Nobody took any steps to advise Mrs. Mares that her kids are in trouble here. They are struggling.”

 

SECK:  “Well, judge, let's put the facts in perspective. There was no notice to the school district of Jason Mares's potential suicide at all, bottom line.”

 

JUDGE:  “Is there no circumstance that you can envision that would rise to a duty to intervene when you've taken steps to act in loco parentis and have a school psychologist, parent-teacher conferences from time to time?  Is there no circumstance you could think of that would give rise to any duty to intervene?”

 

SECK:  “Not under the facts of this case. And that is because the suicide is committed off the premises.”

 

November 2006 —  The plaintiff retains Dr. Scott Poland, past president of the National Association of School Psychologists, as expert witness. Poland is one of the world’s leading authorities on youth suicide and has authored many of the textbooks and journals that establish “best practices” for school personnel in preventing, and responding to, student tragedies.

 

Plaintiff documents filed with the court state that Poland will testify that Shawnee Mission West personnel "violated the standard of care of school districts” and that the district "has an obligation to implement proper training policies and procedures regarding suicide.”  It adds:

 

"Following the death of Jason Mares, the school district had an obligation to implement appropriate safeguards to assist Justin Mares. School counselors did not take any actions to assist Justin Mares regarding his re-entry into SM West."

 

 

November 2006 — The school system files court documents identifying its expert witness as Dr. Rosalyn E. Inniss, a Kansas City psychiatrist. Her credentials are not specified in court documents. However, a Web search reveals that she was an expert witness for AlliedSignal during its 2001 defense of a wrongful discharge lawsuit filed by a former executive. The lawsuit involved claims and counterclaims that the fired executive had a manic-depressive (bipolar) disorder. Dr. Inniss also is listed as former chair of an American Psychiatric Association task force that developed guidelines, in 1981, for the psychiatric hospitalization of minors.

 

The document also provides the first suggestion that the school district’s defense team plans to get rough and personal if necessary — to portray Barbara Mares as the derelict head of a dysfunctional household. The defense report says that Dr. Innis will testify “concerning the role of school districts within the Kansas City area concerning family intervention following suicide, contributory factors unrelated to the Shawnee Mission School district … and the appropriateness of the action or inaction of the plaintiff, Barbara Mares.”

 

Dr. Inniss, it adds, will testify that:

• Justin Mares lacked a father figure and had a “questionable relationship with a male parent figure.” The reference is not explained.

• Barbara Mares failed to obtain professional counseling for her son and provide him with “family support”

• Justin was a victim of “multiple relocations to and from Kansas City, relationship issues and lack of peer group support.”

• Mrs. Mares failed to “communicate information to the School District concerning her knowledge of Justin Mares’ mental status.”

 

“It is Dr. Inniss’ opinion,” the document concludes, “that the role of the School did not require the Shawnee Mission School District to intervene, that it is impossible to determine whether any intervention would or would not have prevented the suicide of Justin Mares, and that the family was in the best position to detect and intervene to prevent the suicide of Justice Mares.”

 

 

December 8, 2006 —  The defense renews its petition for summary dismissal of the Mares case.  The petition argues that Justin Mares was not a student at Shawnee Mission West at the time of his suicide.

 

The petition dismisses as irrelevant the plaintiff claim that the school’s negligent behavior occurred the prior spring, when Jason was a student at the high school.

 

DVC: During one of my interviews with Krawitz, the principal also raised this issue. He referred to Justin Mares as a “dropout.” The family argues that Justin was, at best, a push-out. They claim Justin pleaded with school officials to accept his out-of-state course transcript covering the first half of his senior year.  Apparently, the family believes, West officials saw no reason to bend the rules for a boy who was still mourning the suicide of his younger brother.

 

Feb. 2 — State District Judge Vano issues a final order rejecting the school district’s request to dismiss the Mares lawsuit. Plans move ahead for a June 18 jury trial.  However, the defense team immediately announced its plans to file an “interlocutory appeal” to the Kansas Court of Appeals, asking it to overturn Judge Vano’s ruling.

 

April 30,  2007 — Sources indicate that the school district’s defense team is rapidly exhausting all its appeal options and has asked the Mares family to accept outside mediation of the lawsuit. Whether the school district is seeking binding or non-binding arbitration is not known. The sticking point in a settlement will likely have less to do with money than with school-based reform. The Mares family wants the Shawnee Mission School District to implement nationally endorsed  suicide prevention/intervention/postvention programs for students and faculty alike. While many school systems around the country have done so in recent years, many resist doing so for fear of inviting future lawsuits.  The thinking: If no programs are in place, an institution can claim ignorance or lack of responsibility. By implementing formal prevention programs, school administrators acknowledge — and accept — an obligation to the health and welfare of mentally ill children.

 

May 18, 2007 —  Sources report that the school district is trying once again to have an appellate court dismiss the Mares lawsuit. Meanwhile, time draws near for the scheduled June 18 trial.  However, the defense appeal may prompt District Judge Vano to delay the trial date.


May 29 — Judge Vano reverses his two earlier rulings and grants the defense a summary dismissal of the lawsuit. It is not known whether Vano knew at this time that both parties were beginning a settlement conference using a third-party mediator. Based on information from sources close to the case, neither the mediator nor the attorneys involved notified Judge Vano of the pending settlement conference.


May 30, 2007  —Both sides meet with a mediator in the offices of defense counsel Michael Seck. According to sources within the school district, the family asks $100,000 in damages and an agreement by the school district to implement a nationally endorsed suicide prevention program across the Shawnee Mission school system.  The defense counters with $3,000 for the family.  The family finally agrees to accept $10,000 and school administrators agree to test the suicide prevention program — only at Shawnee Mission West High. The defense also insists that the Mares family pay the cost of the course materials for the prevention program.


The mediator, a retired former judge, says he notified Judge Vano of the agreement -- by email -- within hours” of the settlement conference.  It is not known whether Judge Vano received the email before writing his summary judgment order, or whether thee settlement agreement would have changed the judge’s mind about summary dismissal of the suit.


It also is not known whether the Shawnee Mission school board received a written copy of the settlement agreement or approved it. As of this writing, the family says it has not received a copy of the agreement to review or sign.


Apparently there will be no public investigation of the Mares deaths or the conduct of Karl Krawitz and Shawnee Mission school officials.


July 2007 — A spokesman for the Mares family tells a local journalist that terms of the settlement cannot be disclosed.