Parents say harassment over Web site led to son's suicide

TEXAS– Gabriel Kelley was only 17 when he was found dead after hanging himself near the dormitories of his high school, the Texas Academy for Leadership in the Humanities in Beaumont on April 29.Although some viewed his untimely death as unforeseeable, his parents believe the suicide was preventable and came from harassment and mental abuse he experienced partly because of a Web site he posted that was critical of the school.Kelley’s family has filed a lawsuit in a Texas district court against Lamar University, which operates the academy for gifted high school students.The lawsuit claims that two administrators, Dorothy Sisk and Jean LaGrone “falsely generated [disciplinary notices], and falsely informed Gabe that these fraudulent notices had been sent to his parents. They maliciously and intentionally ignored the Academy’s student life policies and disciplinary procedures.”Kelley’s Web site, which is no longer accessible, was connected to the academy student government’s home page. Darren Umphrey, the Kelleys’ attorney, said the Web site criticized the academy regarding the way they handle disciplinary matters.The university made it clear early on that Kelley’s Web site was not in violation of any school policies, Umphrey said. But, he said, two administrators used “renegade” tactics to try to scare him into believing he would be punished, or possibly expelled.A suicide note found in Kelley’s pocket named LaGrone and said that she “is a danger (at least in a psychological sense) to Academy students.””[Gabriel] was the type of person who was outspoken,” Umphrey said. “They [the administrators] made it known that they didn’t like it. They were talking to [his] parents telling them he was a troublemaker.”He was trying to reach out to ask for help. His efforts were fruitless in his mind.”Fernando C. Gomez, vice chancellor and general counsel for the Texas State University system, called the lawsuit “totally frivolous” and said that while the academy mourns the loss of Kelley, the family has no grounds to sue the university for what he said were two completely unrelated matters.”There is no connection between the suicide and action on the part of the university,” Gomez said. “This sort of thing happens all the time. What are you going to do? Sue the nearest deep pocket?”In a July 3 report for the Beaumont Enterprise, LaGrone said many students have had much worse disciplinary trouble, and school administrators “weren’t a threat to him.”Umphrey, however, points to a letter to the university four months before the suicide from an academy parent that complained of how discipline had been handled.Also, in December 1996, a faculty senate ad hoc committee wrote a letter to Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs William Cale stating that lax discipline on the campus “creates an atmosphere that may lead to a tragic event….”Umphrey claims these letters are directly related to the problems Kelley had with administrators in the academy, and his problems could have been prevented before it was too late.Gomez said the university will fight the lawsuit, which is scheduled to go to trial in December 1998.