The politics of a schoolgirl’s suicide

Feb 7, 2018

OPINION

By Fariq Alsalam

M Vasanthapiriya’s untimely and unnecessary death has become a lightning rod for the Opposition and some government supporters alike to apportion blame and make the wildest allegations against the Inspector-General of Police and the Education Ministry in what could only be described as an uncontrolled outpouring of “political” grief.

The young girl died unnecessarily and in circumstances that could have been avoided. Considering the teacher’s powers (as feminists would often like to describe such relationships as) over young Vasanthapiriya, understandably some refer to the teacher’s actions and allegations against the young girl as “murder”.

Unfortunately and not to try to play down the irresponsibility of the teacher’s actions, her acts and omissions in this matter hardly amount to the criminal act of murder.  Vasanthapiriya took her own life.

However it cannot be said that (and if correctly reported) the teacher’s actions are faultless and without culpability. The teacher’s actions and omissions regardless of how they were intended whether or not the consequences were foreseen or not by her may be actionable under the civil law.

The parents of Vasanthapiriya may well have an action against the teacher, joining the school and the ministry of education in a civil action for her death. Such action is not unprecedented and unheard of in recent times.

Authoritative studies conducted in Australia, the US and in some European countries have conclusively linked bullying to suicides. Although many of those studies tend to have a nexus to cyber bullying they do not exclude direct bullying and threats and insults which have been contributors to youth suicides.

In most civil cases involving liability for someone’s death, it is relatively easy to link the defendant with the conduct that caused the death. A car driver fails to stop at a red light and hits a pedestrian, killing him.  A doctor negligently carries out a medical procedure during a relatively routine procedure, and kills the patient.

However in civil cases where family members are desperate to hold someone else liable for the suicide of a loved one, this causal link (the legal term for this is “causation”) is much more tenuous and difficult to prove.

In order for the relatives of Vasanthapiriya to succeed in any action against the teacher,  the  school and ultimately the Education Ministry, they have to establish the existence of a special relationship (not difficult to prove) between Vasanthapiriya and the defendants.

What is this “special relationship?” we speak of? Children spend more time it is said with their teachers and schools than they do with their parents in the first 10 years of their lifetime (assuming they enter school at the age of six).

There is an implied parent child relationship between a student and its teacher imputed into this special relationship although legislation does not specifically spell it out.

Teachers are in large part surrogate parents to a child in their care and enjoy an enormous degree of influence, power and control over the children in their care. As well they are burdened with the responsibility for the care of the child and how they use or abuse that power and control over the child during school hours within the school precincts. There is little doubt about this point.

So how could this alleged theft of a telephone belonging to a teacher and the allegation that this young girl stole it have ended so tragically?

Did the school, the Education Ministry or the teacher herself miss out on something in this child’s psychological make-up? Does the teacher have a record or propensity towards abusive behavior towards her students? Was Vasanthapiriya  particularly sensitive to allegations of impropriety? Did it affect her personal or cultural morality that she saw suicide as the way out of dishonor or the allegation of dishonorable conduct leveled against her? Was she a “think skull” victim? (from a criminal case where the defense unsuccessfully tried to avoid the charge of murder by relying on the victim’s particularly think skull).

Anyway one looks at it, it is likely the teacher, the school and the ministry may have some degree of culpability that could result in a civil suit against the teacher joining the other two as co-defendants in the suit.

If Vasanthapiriya’s reaction (even if not death) to the allegations such as shock, nervous shock, psychological trauma (which must have pushed her over the edge) and humiliation was foreseeable, there is a case to answer. Maybe not for murder or manslaughter but perhaps for wrongful death.

Taking a measured approach after a loved one has died is near impossible. This is even harder to fathom in the event that the deceased is a child who took their life, especially if the cause of that suicide is suspected to be bullying. It’s not unreasonable for a parent to wonder: If the school knew or ought to have known that the child was being bullied and they didn’t take the appropriate steps to stop it, can they be held liable in a wrongful death case?

The short answer is not simple: Maybe. There are qualifications in the US in the state of California where first a plaintiff must be able to prove that the school was negligent. The law in California provides that there are different methods for suing a private school compared to a public schools. A public school has governmental immunity. It can’t be sued unless the court specifically allows it.

If it is allowed, or you’re dealing with a private school, then you’ll need to engage in a process which would include supplying the details of the action that resulted in death. That explanation must include the plaintiff’s theory on how they believe the school was negligent. If the case isn’t properly explained then the court will  likely dismiss it for lack of merit.

Bullying is serious. Those who are responsible should be held accountable. It is now a universal theme being taken very seriously the world over. – Fariq Alsalam is the pseudonym of a lawyer in Australia

* The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of Malaysian Outlook.