Families sue over school stabbings

Posted: Sunday, February 02, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The families of two Anchorage elementary school students stabbed on campus by a mental patient are suing the Anchorage School District, Alaska Psychiatric Institute and Southcentral Counseling.

The plaintiffs contend the entities failed to protect children wounded in the 2001 attacks.

In oral arguments Friday, an attorney for Southcentral Counseling asked Anchorage Superior Court Judge Sharon Gleason to drop the agency from one of the cases. Gleason refused.

The family of student Stephan Hansell says Southcentral knew Jason Pritchard was a danger to others, specifically children, but still didn't recommend involuntary commitment, according to their complaint, filed last year.

API should have kept him in the hospital, but released him, the Hansell complaint says. Southcentral and API treated Pritchard from 1999 to January 2001.

According to the family, the School District didn't have adequate supervision on the Mountain View Elementary School playground the day Pritchard attacked their children. If there was an adult visible, they say, Pritchard might have hesitated.

The family of student Cody Brown has filed a similar suit.

Pritchard slashed and seriously injured four schoolchildren in May 2001. He pleaded no contest to two counts of attempted murder and was sentenced last spring to the equivalent of life in prison without parole.

According to the Hansell complaint, Pritchard, who suffers from schizophrenia, has been in and out of mental hospitals and openly spoke about his desire to kill children.

Gleason ruled against dropping Southcentral from the case, saying a jury could decide whether the agency knew enough about Pritchard's violent threats to commit him. But she also ruled that Southcentral didn't have a duty to warn all the children of Alaska about Pritchard's rants.

An attorney for Southcentral, which is part of Anchorage Community Mental Health Services, argued that Pritchard didn't make clear threats about whom he was targeting and when. Without that information, the law doesn't allow counselors to recommend commitment, said attorney Mike Nave.

James Wendt, who represents the Hansell and Brown families, said counselors knew the mentally ill man had threatened to kill children on playgrounds. The warnings were adequate, he said.

The families are seeking unspecified damages, he said. A trial is set for September.

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