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School District Sued Over Boy's Suicide Attempt

Courts: The parents of a Mission Viejo honors student, now in a coma, say he was despondent over a suspension.

November 02, 1996|DAVAN MAHARAJ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — The parents of a Mission Viejo honors student who suffered severe brain damage after shooting himself in the head have sued the Capistrano Unified School District, claiming the suicide attempt was caused by the boy's wrongful suspension.

Patricia and Louis Antonucci contend in a lawsuit that their 13-year-old son, despondent over being harangued by a school vice principal for allegedly stealing a classmate's electronic organizer, loaded a .357 Magnum, placed it to his forehead, and pulled the trigger.

The suicide attempt took place last Halloween in an office of the family's popular Mission Viejo restaurant, Antonucci's, minutes after the mother had retrieved the boy from Newhart Middle School, where he was handed a two-day suspension. It left eight-grader Michael Antonucci severely brain-damaged and in a coma, said Gary Paul, the family's attorney.

"He's a sensitive, wonderful child and he felt so bad about whatever they told him [that] he took this action," Louis Antonucci said Thursday night.

The lawsuit alleges that, among other things, school district officials caused the boy to suffer emotional distress and violated his federal civil rights.

School district officials said they sympathized with the family, but denied any responsibility for the suicide attempt.

"All our documents regarding what happened at Newhart School are in order," said Jacqueline Price, a spokesperson for the school district. "We're confident that we will prevail in court."

"As a large public agency, we get sued all the time and we prevail in 90% of these cases. We don't expect this case to be any different," said Price, adding that she could not comment on the facts of the case.

But the Antonuccis' attorney presented the family's version.

He said Vice Principal Kim Lynch called Michael into her office after receiving a report that he and another student had stolen a classmate's organizer. Michael was kept in Lynch's office for about two hours where we was "interrogated, disgraced, ridiculed and humiliated," Paul said.

Paul contended that Michael and another boy had not stolen the organizer but were simply playing a prank on a classmate.

According to the lawyer, the vice principal told Michael that he would be suspended for two days, and upon his return from the suspension, he would have to spend the first two days in a classroom by himself.

If the vice principal had taken the time to check Michael's records, she would have found that he was a straight A "mentally gifted honor student with absolutely no history of disciplinary problems," Paul said.

Instead, the vice principal asked Michael's mother to pick him up from school. Minutes after she took him to the family restaurant, he obtained the pistol from the office area and attempted to kill himself.

"Nothing else but the humiliation in that office could have been a contributor to what occurred," Paul added. "We're all aware that this is a very difficult age for children and they must be handled cautiously."

Louis Antonucci said the family decided to file a lawsuit because they needed money to pay Michael's mounting medical bills and to finance his therapy.

"He's our whole life," the father said. "He deserves a real chance to come back all the way."

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