The parents of Lukas Swearingen always knew their son had challenges.
“He was a little bit shorter than everybody, a little bit different,” Alicia Swearingen told KIRO 7 recently.
Diagnosed as a young child with autism, bipolar depression and mood disorder, Lukas had long been in the care of psychiatrists, psychologists and counselors.
From kindergarten through eighth grade at Salish Middle School in Lacey, Alicia said, her child always had an Individual Education Plan “so they knew there were special needs," she said. "There were doctors to call. There were people to reach out to if they needed help and they didn’t. They didn’t even reach out to me.”
Alicia and her husband, Dave Swearingen, said Lukas' classmates also knew about his challenges and they believe many of those classmates targeted their son because of them.
Just a few days into the 2017-2018 school year, Alicia said Lukas was “harassed physically and then verbally, in the lunchroom, and thrown off a chair. And I went in and talked to the Assistant Principal and she said, ‘Yes, this was a full and total case of bullying.’”
The family’s lawyers shared video of that incident with KIRO 7.
What the Swearingens didn’t know was that Lukas had confided in the school counselor at Salish about the ongoing bullying and its impact on his mental health.
The family is now suing the North Thurston School District for allegedly violating their child’s civil rights.
Their complaint, filed in U.S. District Court, includes "true and correct photocopies of his counsellor's notes" that detail how Lukas felt "unsafe" and "unwanted" in April 2017, when he was a seventh grader.
The complaint also alleges that other students wrote threats and encouraged Lukas to kill himself.
“He’d walk into the classroom and there on the whiteboard would be ‘Go Kill Yourself, Lukas.’ On the whiteboard. Just walk into class and the teacher would be there,” Alicia said.
“No one helped us,” Dave said.
“We asked and we asked, especially the principal. She never even called." Alicia said the the one time she called was when the couple was “standing in the emergency room,” his wife finished his sentence during an interview with KIRO 7.
The counselor's handwritten notes also reveal Lukas "wanted to jump off the railing" and "would do it," according to the lawsuit.
The Swearingens claim no one at Salish Middle School ever told them their son had mentioned killing himself. “Never got a phone call,” Alicia said.
She said she assumes “the counselor must have just written it down and closed her book and walked away.”
Surveillance video taken inside the school on Oct. 11, 2017 shows Lukas climbing over the railing amd then throwing himself off the second-floor balcony.
According to his mother, Lukas “tried to kill himself.”
A KIRO 7 News crew at the scene that day in 2017 reported that a letter sent home to parents described the incident as a “fall.”
Alicia bristled when asked to respond to that explanation. “They knew it wasn’t a fall,” she said. “You don’t fall off a balcony that comes up to here on you. You have to jump. So I think they were trying to cover themselves. They didn’t want to say, ‘OK, look, we obviously are having problems here that the harassment and the bullying are at such a level that someone wants to kill themselves.”
Chris Williams, of Cedar Law PLLC in Seattle, is one of the attorneys representing the Swearingen family.
Williams said that inside Lukas’ pocket after the incident was “a note that he had written, which appears to have been meant as a suicide note that said 'I’m so sorry.”
Lukas survived but suffered a traumatic brain injury. He was airlifted to Harborview Medical Center, where he was in a coma for 10 days, and in ICU for another week. More than a year later, the now 14-year old still suffers severe headaches “because of the mesh that is sticking out” of his skull, Lukas told KIRO 7.
“He’s still struggling,” Alicia said.
“He has 19 plates screwed into his head.”
Lukas' long-term prognosis is unknown. “With any traumatic brain injury, the best they will say is, ‘We don’t really know,’” his mother said.
While Lukas was out of school for months, many of his classmates at Salish Middle School sent cards and letters of support, and he said North Thurston High School is much better than middle school.
“People treat me better” at high school.
“I feel like I belong in school,” Lukas said.
His parents, however, are concerned that others in the North Thurston School District might not be protected from bullying or suicide, which is why they filed their lawsuit in federal court, for alleged violation of U.S. anti-discrimination laws.
“What we went through was horrible, absolutely horrible,” Dave said.
Lara Hruska, also of Cedar Law PLLC, said the case rises to the federal level “because the harassment, intimidation and bullying was disability related.”
“That was why Lukas was persecuted so viciously by his peers,” Hruska said.
In Washington state, suicide is the second leading cause of death for teens, which is why the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction has ordered school districts to adopt suicide prevention protocols.
KIRO 7 asked the North Thurston School District for an interview to detail its suicide prevention plans, but that request was denied.
Instead, district spokesperson Courtney Schrieve responded via email, writing:
"On advice of counsel, the District cannot comment on pending litigation, other than to say that the District denies any wrongdoing and looks forward to defending itself in court."
Williams is angered by what he believes is the North Thurston School District’s insufficient suicide prevention plan. Compared to some other districts, “it’s miniscule what their policies and protocols are,” he said.
“Our Legislature has passed laws that obligate them to specifically screen for emotional trauma and have suicide protocols in place, and all of that failed in this case,” Williams said.
Williams and Hruska believe the counselor’s notes are evidence the school and the district could have done more to protect Lukas.
“Anybody with basic training about suicide prevention or identifying the credibility of a threat knows that those are fundamental things that you look for,” Hruska said. “And they’re in black and white in the notes.”
While the legal battle is just beginning, Lukas is concentrating on a future of computer programming or gaming of some sort. “I’d really like to code,” he told KIRO 7.
Lukas also has advice for any child being bullied or considering suicide.
“I would really just like them to know that everything is eventually going to get better. You just have to keep trying and trying, even if it’s painful,” he said.
Here is more information for parents in Washington state with questions about suicide prevention protocols.
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