Parents of teen suicide victim sue western Pa. school district in federal court

By Jon Campisi | Oct 15, 2012

The parents of a western Pennsylvania student with special needs who committed suicide

the day after she was allegedly strip-searched and humiliated by school administrators who claimed to have been looking for drugs on the girl have filed a federal complaint against the school district and officials alleging that the defendants’ actions contributed toward their daughter’s death.

Shane and Sandy Maxwell claim in their lawsuit, which was filed Oct. 1 at the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania by attorneys with the Sharon, Pa. firm Evans, Garvey, Lackey & Ochs, that their teenage daughter, Tiffani, who had been designated as having special needs, and who suffered two prior rape incidents, fell ill during her third period gym class back on Jan. 14, 2011.

A classmate assisted Tiffani to nurse Joan Timko’s office at the Slippery Rock Area High School, a trip that was intercepted by school principal Kristie Shulsky, the lawsuit states.

At this point, the suit claims, Shulsky began screaming accusations of drug use at Tiffani in the hallway, after which the principal ordered the classmate to return to the classroom.

While in the nurse’s office, the suit states, Shulsky again accused Tiffani of drug use in a “loud, forceful and aggressive manner.”

Assistant Principal Daniel Szolek, who was present at the time, did nothing to stop the tirade against Tiffani, the complaint alleges.

Shulsky, who ordered Tiffani to remain sitting in a chair until the girl confessed to drug use, and continued her interrogation of the student for about 15 minutes, eventually ordered Nurse Timko to conduct a “drug screen” on Tiffani, a process that included a strip search, as per school policy.

Tiffani was then led to another room where the nurse, with the principal looking on, conducted a strip search on the teenager, which included having Tiffani stripping down to her bra and underwear, pulling the elastic of her underwear away from her body and lifting up her bra away from her body, the lawsuit claims.

“Tiffani was degraded by being forced to remove her clothing against her will,” the lawsuit states.

No drugs were ever found as a result of the strip search, with Tiffani, all the while adamantly denying that she used or possessed drugs.

Tiffani was then immediately suspended for 10 days for drug possession and/or use.

The girl’s parents were eventually told by school officials that fellow students had reported that they witnessed Tiffani in possession of drugs while riding the school bus on Jan. 14, but the parents explained that Tiffani had been driven to school that day.

Nevertheless, Tiffani’s suspension was not lifted, the suit claims.

Due to her prior absences for medical reasons, Tiffany believed that her 10-day suspension would prevent her from completing the schoolwork necessary to advance to the next grade, the lawsuit states.

“Tiffani was so distraught from the events of January 14, 2011 that on the morning of January 15, 2011 she obtained a gun in her home, shot herself at the base of the skull and died instantly,” the complaint states.

Sandy Maxwell was at home at the time of her daughter’s suicide.

The lawsuit alleges that the improper investigation of the accusations regarding drugs, the illegal and unreasonable strip search while illegally detaining Tiffany, and the subsequent suspension from school without cause were violations of Tiffani’s civil rights.

These violations eventually led to the teen’s suicide, the suit claims.

In addition to the federal civil rights claims, the lawsuit contains state-law claims of wrongful death, assault and battery, invasion of privacy, false imprisonment, and both negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The plaintiffs seek unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, as well as pre-and-post-judgment interest, delay damages and other relief.

The principal, assistant principal, school nurse and the school district itself are all named as defendants in the complaint.


The federal case number is 2:12-cv-01420-DSC.

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