Three weeks before 18-year-old Jay Gallagher took his own life, a worried friend who lived in Colorado sent an email to his school counselor at Potomac Falls High in Potomac Falls, Va., telling the counselor that Jay was saying things “with suicidal content,” according to a lawsuit filed in Loudoun County Circuit Court on Friday.
“He’s usually crying alone in his room because he doesn’t seem to have a good relationship with his parents,” the girl wrote.
The counselor, Richard Bader, met with Gallagher, sending the girl a reassuring response: “Talked with him today. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.”
But should Bader have notified Gallagher’s parents?
That question is at the center of a $5 million wrongful-death lawsuit Jay’s parents, Erin and Timothy Gallagher, filed against Bader. The lawsuit accuses the school counselor of negligence and ignoring school guidelines that direct counselors to notify parents if their children express suicidal thoughts.
But Julia Judkins, Bader’s attorney, said the lawsuit does not tell the full story. Judkins said that the teen told Bader not to talk to his parents about their meeting and denied he was suicidal.
“They’ve left out the fact that this young man was 18 years old and he had the right to tell Mr. Bader, ‘Please don’t tell my parents,’ ” Judkins said.
Robert Hall, an attorney for the Gallaghers, said they had no idea their son was in trouble and believe they could have saved his life had they known he was suicidal.
The parental notification guidelines “need to be enforced,” Hall said. “This was Jay Gallagher’s only opportunity to be saved.”
According to Hall and to the lawsuit, Jay Gallagher was a stellar student and had been admitted to Virginia Tech. But his parents did not know he had put intense pressure on himself to perform well in school and had been under extreme stress. Jay’s father found his son dead in his room Feb. 3.
After his death, one of Jay’s friends, a young woman who had moved to Colorado from Loudoun County, reached out to his parents to tell them she had emailed Jay’s school counselor to tell him of her concerns in the weeks before Jay’s death.
“Last night was the most concerning due to the suicidal thoughts and the self harm,” the girl wrote in an email to the counselor in mid-January, adding that she did not believe his parents were “open to discussing issues or emotions.” “I wanna say stress stems from busy schedule, lacking self worth and various expectations.”
Bader met with Gallagher but never filled out the suicide screening form and never notified his parents. Hall argues that the school’s Suicide Prevention Action Plan required Bader to follow those steps.
“Mr. Bader didn’t do anything wrong,” Judkins said, adding that their conversation did not meet the threshold for a suicide screening or parental notification. “It wasn’t applicable given the communications between Mr. Bader and young Jay Gallagher.”
The lawsuit is a culmination of months of failed talks between school officials and the Gallaghers. Hall said the parents sought to clarify the guidelines or policies that outline when a counselor should contact parents and to ensure that all counselors are trained on the guidelines.
The Gallaghers wrote in a post on a Facebook page they created in their son’s memory that they filed the lawsuit “with a great deal of reluctance” and merely hoped to push the school system to improve its procedures.
Hall said that he asked school lawyers to meet for a confidential mediation session with a retired judge and that the school system refused. But Judkins said the mediation session stalled because the family asked the school board’s insurance company to be present and did not lay out their specific requests ahead of time.