Parents sue Yuba City school district, saying it failed to relay daughter’s suicide plan

On May 24, Madison Ocheltree turned in all of her homework and finished her assignments. The Yuba City sixth-grader gave her family no indication that something was terribly wrong, they say.

But 12-year-old Madison took her own life that day.

“She was an amazing, beautiful, smart, helpful, courteous, talented human,” Morgan Ocheltree wrote in a June 2 Facebook post, sharing a photo of daughter Madison with seven ducks hanging around her neck from that day’s hunt.

But Morgan Ocheltree said she had no idea Madison, who had suffered bullying in the past, “felt so alone.”

“Please -- talk to your kids, know their friends, be involved,” she wrote. “We did all that and still had no clue. We are beyond devastated.”

She says that’s because the school officials who were aware of Madison’s plans to take her own life failed to inform her parents. Dan and Morgan Ocheltree also say that in the days leading up to their daughter’s death, the school was aware that students were continuing to bully Madison and telling her to die.

The Ocheltrees have filed a lawsuit against Yuba City Unified School District, and the Andros Karperos School principal and counselor — both of whom, the Ocheltrees allege, knew that Madison had shared with a friend that she planned to kill herself.

The lawsuit, filed Oct. 7 in Sutter Superior Court, claims that the school district, Madison’s K-8 school principal Clint Johnson and counselor Todd Tyler, and other unnamed defendants “demonstrated deliberate indifference” when they failed to intervene when they learned Madison was bullied, and neglected to inform her parents when they learned she planned to die by suicide.

Madison sent a text message to a friend on April 5 indicating that she planned to take her own life in May, according to the lawsuit.

The friend showed the text to a teacher, who showed the text to several other Andros School staff members and Principal Johnson, according to the lawsuit. Johnson referred the reporting teacher to Tyler, who conducted one counseling session with Madison the same day the message was reported, the suit says. Tyler had Madison fill out a questionnaire and sent her back to class, with no further follow-up counseling sessions, and no mention of the incident to her parents, according to the suit.

Seven weeks later Madison hanged herself, two weeks shy of her 13th birthday.

“No time prior to her death had [her parents] been notified of any problems of Madison’s intent to commit suicide and thus they were deprived of the opportunity to obtain counseling for Madison or otherwise address the problem,” the lawsuit says.

The Ocheltrees said they found out about the text message only after Madison died. Madison’s teacher, who reported it to the counselor, informed them, according to Steve Gurnee, the attorney representing the family.

The Yuba City Unified School District said it cannot comment on a pending lawsuit.

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“The subject of this lawsuit is a tragedy that shook our community and left parents, teachers, and students grieving and in shock,” read a statement from the district. “We join our community in grieving this profound and heartbreaking loss.”

It’s unclear whether Tyler is still employed at the school. Tyler is not listed on the school’s website as one of its three counselors.

The lawsuit states the defendants had a mandatory duty to intervene, under California Education Code 49602, which states that parents of a student should be notified when a school counselor has reason to believe a student presents danger to him or herself. It also stated that the defendants failed in their duty to train counselors, teachers, coaches and staff on how to “guard against risks of harm to students.”

“This death was very preventable,” said Gurnee.

Gurnee said Yuba City Unified adopted a policy in 2010 that mandated reporting such incidents to parents to comply with state law. Documents show that the district changed that policy on June 25 from “The principal or counselor shall then notify student’s parents/guardians as soon as possible” to “The counselor may report to the principal or student’s parents/guardians when there is reasonable cause to believe that disclosure is necessary to avert a clear and present danger” to the student’s health and safety.

The change was made one month after Madison’s death.

“It’s an attempt to avoid responsibility, but it’s a not a very good one,” Gurnee said. “If schools adopt a policy like this, they should follow it. Had they followed it, deaths like this one could be prevented.”

The Ocheltrees, according to court documents, continue to suffer great pain and emotional distress after Madison’s death.

In her obituary, Madison was described as a “beautiful, courageous, brilliant young lady with a heart of gold. She was Daddy’s hunting and fishing buddy, Mom’s hero, and best friend to each of her three sisters.”

The lawsuit, which is seeking punitive damages including mental health treatment and loss of wages, calls the acts of the district and defendants “willful, malicious, intentional oppressive and reckless.”

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Sawsan Morrar covers school accountability and culture for The Sacramento Bee. She grew up in Sacramento and is an alumna of UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She previously freelanced for various publications including The Washington Post, Vice, KQED and Capital Public Radio.