Family sues teacher, Wakulla School Board over student suicide

Published: Aug. 23, 2017 at 7:59 PM EDT
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By: Julie Montanaro | WCTV Eyewitness News

August 23, 2017

WAKULLA COUNTY, Fla. (WCTV) -- The family of a 15 year old boy who committed suicide is now suing his teacher, the sheriff and the Wakulla County School District.

Wednesday, the family of Kyle Johnson filed a wrongful death suit.

"It's devastating," Johnson family attorney Collin Cherry said after filing the suit. "This was their golden child."

The suit was filed just weeks after former Riversprings Middle School teacher Rhonda Shields pleaded guilty to providing alcohol to minors.

She was sentenced to 30 days in jail and 30 days on the jail work camp followed by two years on probation.

The civil suit contends Shields - and those who knew about her relationship with the eighth grader - are partly to blame for Kyle Johnson's suicide.

Johnson was just 15 years old when he killed himself in August 2015.

"We're seeking some justice," Johnson family attorney Collin Cherry said.

Cherry filed suit Wednesday saying Kyle's death could have been prevented.

The suit points the finger of blame at his former middle school teacher Rhonda Shields.

The suit claims even after she was reprimanded by the Wakulla County School Board for "improper interaction with select students," Shields provided Johnson with alcohol and ultimately sexually battered him.

"Teachers have ... a delicate position with our children and they're trusted with their care and safety and Rhonda Shields took advantage of that," Cherry said. "This particular relationship caused significant damage to Kyle Johnson and put him in a position where he would do something like commit suicide."

The suit also claims the Wakulla County School Board knew about the student-teacher relationship, but didn't tell Johnson's parents.

"Rhonda Shields allowed Kyle Johnson to drive her car, provided him with alcohol," Cherry said. "The family was never notified of the inappropriate relationship that Rhonda Shields had with their son. Had they been notified they could have saved him."

The school district had no comment on the allegations leveled in the wrongful death suit, citing pending litigation. Wakulla School Board Spokesman Jim Griner said "the district is looking forward to defending itself in court."

The Wakulla County Sheriff's Office also declined to comment saying it "had not received the lawsuit yet and wouldn't be able to comment on pending civil litigation anyway."

The suit claims WCSO was negligent in its School Resource Officer duties at the school because it failed to investigate the relationship, failed to intervene and failed to preserve evidence in the case.

FDLE ultimately took over the case and charged Shields with contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

FDLE spokeswoman Jessica Cary said it found evidence of "multiple inappropriate contacts" with minors including giving alcohol to teens.

Cary said, "In 2016 the Wakulla Co. Sheriff's Office requested FDLE investigate allegations of a sexual relationship between a Wakulla County public school teacher and a juvenile student. The allegations surrounded Rhonda Shields, a full time teacher, and a male student. Agents investigated the allegations of sexual battery on a minor."

Cary said the "alleged juvenile male victim committed suicide prior to" FDLE taking over the case and there wasn't enough evidence to charge her with sexual battery.

The Wakulla School Board says Shields is no longer employed with the district.

We are trying to find out the status of her teaching certification.

Florida Department of Education Press Secretary Audrey Walden said,

"We cannot confirm or deny whether there is an open investigation on Rhonda Shields."

The state's Education Practices Commission doesn't list any disciplinary action against her on its web site.