Jury hearing lawsuit over girl's suicide at Thompson Falls boarding school

2010-10-20T06:30:00Z 2010-11-20T07:49:16Z Jury hearing lawsuit over girl's suicide at Thompson Falls boarding schoolBy VINCE DEVLIN of the Missoulian missoulian.com
October 20, 2010 6:30 am  • 

THOMPSON FALLS - Six years ago, a Colorado teenager killed herself while in the care and custody of a boarding school for troubled youths located near here.

Less than a week before her 17th birthday, Karlye Newman hanged herself in her dormitory bathroom. She used a sweatshirt to kill herself.

It was Oct. 7, 2004. Now a civil lawsuit stemming from the girl's death is being argued before a Sanders County jury.

Newman's mother says the school misled her about her daughter's progress and condition, ignored signs that the girl had become suicidal, and indeed contributed to her death through a series of harsh punishments that included solitary confinement and refusing to allow the girl to have any contact with her parents throughout her stay.

The defendants remaining in the now four-year-old lawsuit brought by the mother say she failed to disclose previous suicide threats by the girl before she was enrolled in Spring Creek Lodge Academy and signed off on Spring Creek's methods.

Judith Newman is suing for wrongful death, negligence, breach of contract, fraud and deceit. She is asking for unspecified damages.

The case has gone through four judges, and bickering attorneys on both sides appear to be trying the patience of the latest, retired Montana Supreme Court Justice John Warner, who was brought in after the third District Court judge assigned to the case retired.

As lawyers repeatedly made, and argued over, objections earlier this week while Judith Newman was testifying, Warner said he was having trouble figuring out "who's the adults, and who's at Spring Creek School."

Later, out of the presence of the jury but on the record, the judge said that the record will not reflect "the flavor of the difficulty I am having in controlling this trial."

Before it's over - it began the day after Columbus Day - the trial might become the longest in the history of Sanders County, eclipsing the 2 1/2-week incest trial of Douglas Guill here in 2008.

A jury of eight women and four men are left to sort it all out this month.

***

Karlye Newman, who had been adopted by Newman and her late husband, was a happy and social girl who took to running off as a teenager, her mother testified.

"She wouldn't go far, and she always came back," Judith Newman said in court Monday. "But I wouldn't know where she was, and I was worried."

There was also an instance in 2003 where, after her boyfriend had broken up with her, Karlye allegedly told the boy she was going to kill herself.

"It was a prank - she was trying to make her boyfriend angry," Newman said.

Alerted by the boy to a possible suicide attempt, police arrived at the Newman home - Karlye herself answered the door - and after two hours at a Denver-area hospital, Karlye was released "because the doctor did not feel she was suicidal," Newman testified.

Neighbors suggested Newman consider a boarding school for Karlye, because "it's good she know the rules in our house were the same as they are anywhere," Newman said, and they looked at information for several, including Spring Creek, before settling on one in New Mexico with a good academic reputation.

"I wanted her to go to a safe place where she could learn," her mother said.

Karlye "loved" the Brush Ranch School in Tererro, N.M., Newman told the court, and did well there until, just five weeks before the end of the school year, she ran off with a male upperclassman and also reported taking Benadryl.

"I don't think she thought she'd get kicked out," Newman said, and despite her mother's pleas to the school - "She only had five weeks left, and had great grades" - Brush authorities put her on the next plane home.

"We hugged, we both cried," when Karlye's nanny brought her home from the airport, Newman said. "I wasn't mad at her, I was just crushed for her. It was a hard day for both of us."

***

Finishing out the school year was of paramount importance, Newman said, and she called Teen Help LLC hoping to find a spot someplace for her daughter.

She told the Teen Help representative why Karlye had been kicked out of Brush, she said.

"He asked if Karlye had ever cut herself. I said I had seen her scratch herself," Newman said. "He said, ‘We call those ‘scritches.' He thought Spring Creek would be really great for Karlye, absolutely."

Newman said she was sent a slew of paperwork and addendums to sign, which arrived at different times, and hurried to complete them in the next few days so Karlye could be admitted to the school. She said she was told not to accompany Karlye to Thompson Falls, but that she could visit later.

Newman and her current husband (Karlye's adoptive father died when she was a young girl) put Karlye on a plane for Missoula in the spring of 2004.

"We threw big kisses" as Karlye headed down the boarding ramp, Newman said.

It was the last time she ever saw or spoke to her daughter.

***

Newman's primary connection to Karlye became weekly telephone calls with a Spring Creek counselor named Janet.

She did not know, Newman testified, that after sending Karlye "pretty underwear" as a gift, the Spring Creek staff had cut the bras up with scissors in front of Karlye because the bras had wires in them.

She did not know, she said, that Karlye was being forced to carry a bucket around the campus, and rocks were added to it each time the girl disobeyed a Spring Creek rule.

She did not know, she said, the staff withheld a dictionary Newman sent to help Karlye with her studies, because Karlye had not earned enough points in the Spring Creek system.

She said she did not know students could lose points, too.

"You could lose points by looking out a window," Newman testified. "By looking at another child. By talking. You could

lose points for talking about wanting to kill yourself."

The counselor did tell her that Karlye had tied a sheet around her neck at one point, but Newman said the counselor classified it as "an attempt at attention" and that Karlye was simply doing everything possible to get kicked out of Spring Creek so she could go home.

One of Newman's attorneys, Elizabeth Best of Great Falls, asked Newman if she had ever been informed by Spring Creek that her daughter had been placed in solitary confinement.

"No," Newman answered.

Had she ever been told Karlye was sad and crying a lot? That she was getting in fights? That she had said she wanted to die?

"No," Newman answered each time, adding that if she had been told any of these things, "I would have gotten her out immediately."

***

On cross-examination, defense attorney William Kronenberg of San Francisco questioned Newman about what he saw as discrepancies between her testimony Monday and what she had said when her deposition was taken.

The deposition indicated Newman had said Karlye had threatened suicide "numerous times," he said, but when asked about it in court, she had testified, "I think she did it, once."

Kronenberg also showed the jury one of the forms Newman had filled out for Spring Creek. Asked whether her daughter was suicidal, Newman had checked "no."

He asked about another form Newman had signed warning parents and guardians there would be no phone contact with their children for "60 to 120 days or longer."

Newman said all the paperwork had arrived at different times, and she was under pressure to get all of it, and a check, in the mail so Karlye could enroll and finish out the school year at Spring Creek.

Kronenberg also questioned whether Newman was unfamiliar with the point system, pointing to a letter the mother wrote to her daughter that said, "Dear Karlye, I hear you broke the rules and lost 200 points and are back to Level One. ... Until you stop making wrong decisions we cannot talk about an exit plan."

Newman said she was encouraged by the school staff to write what they termed a "hard" letter in an effort to improve Karlye's behavior.

Through dismissals and out-of-court settlements, a long list of defendants has been whittled down to World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools Inc. of Utah and its founder Robert Lichfield.

The company, Kronenberg says, provides various services to schools like Spring Creek Lodge Academy.

Watchdog groups, however, have accused some institutions associated with WWASPS of being owned by WWASPS officials or their close relatives through limited partnerships. The Coalition Against Institutionalized Child Abuse has a large section at its website, www.caica.org., devoted to the company, which has been the subject of several other lawsuits.

Spring Creek Lodge Academy, once the largest employer in Sanders County, shut down in January 2009.

The trial is expected to continue through the end of the month.

Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or at vdevlin@missoulian.com.

 

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