British school liable for son's suicide, Filipino mom claims

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Trixie Madamba filed a P100-M lawsuit against British School Manila over her son's suicide.

The British School Manila (BSM) is being sued by Trixie Madamba, mother of student Liam, an 18-year old scholar of the school who committed suicide last February.

Mrs. Madamba claims that the manner in which her son was punished for allegedly committing plagiarism in a first-draft version of a required essay pushed her son to end his life.

At first glance, it seems like a case of a grieving mother looking for some way to avenge her son's untimely death. Digging deeper into the story, it becomes a lot more complicated.

He was an exemplary student

Liam was one of only six International Baccalaureate (IB) scholars in his batch at the BSM. He was hand-picked because of his academic abilities. At the time of his death, he was on-track to get top marks (7) on all his subjects.

A letter from someone in the BSM community describes him as wonderful and well adjusted. His family, friends, teachers and guidance counselors did not detect any sort of mental instability or illness.

READ: Suicide Prevention - Know the Warning Signs

He admitted to plagiarising

February 2, 2015 was the deadline for submitting the first draft of the essay. Three days later, Liam and his classmate, Isabella Ver, were called by their IB coordinator Natalie Mann to discuss their alleged plagiarism of one paragraph. Both students included the same paragraph in their essays and both admitted to taking it from the internet.

Plagiarism, which is copying someone else's work and claiming it as one's own, is a serious offense. It is a form of cheating, except that, instead of copying answers from a seatmate, the answers came from someone who wrote a book or published an article on the internet.

It is also a form of lying, except that, instead of verbally saying something false, it is an act of omission - not giving due credit to the original writer.

They were told to apologize to the whole school

What exactly happened during the confrontation between the coordinator and 2 students remains unclear. Isabella mentioned that Mrs. Mann spoke with each of them separately. Some accounts involve a threat to revoke his scholarship, give them failing marks, telling their teachers to go through all of their past works to check for other instances of plagiarism and requiring them to write a new essay on a different topic.

However, the only concrete outcome from the meeting was a "reflection letter" that each student was asked to write, apologizing to the whole school community, the school's headmaster Simon Mann (not related to the coordinator) and themselves.

Upon submission of their letters, only Isabella seemed emotionally distraught and spent additional time with Mrs. Mann. According to an ABS-CBN news article, that was the only time the coordinator assured her that their letters would not be read to the entire school community during the next student assembly.

More on Liam's story on the next page...

At home, Liam did not mention the incident to his parents. He seemed "unusually...sad" but brushed off his mom's concern by saying he "just needed a nap." Early in the morning the next day, Liam jumped from the sixth floor of a carpark building. He was rushed to the Makati Medical Center but later died.

Now, ten months later, his family has filed a civil case against the school amounting to P100 million. A statement from their lawyer stated that they are suing the school headmaster and executives for "unlawful and wrongful acts that caused the loss of Liam’s life and violated his rights and the rights of the Madamba family.” They particularly cited the rights of persons to be treated with dignity and to be protected from humiliation, as provided for by the Civil Code.

The school executives responded with "insensitivity"

Perhaps how the school executives acted after the tragedy also exacerbated the situation. Mrs. Madamba has used the following words to describe them: "arrogant," "lack of compassion," "stone-walling" and "insensitivity." One article argues that this perception all boils down to cultural differences - after all, the British are known for being aloof.

It describes that, just a few moments after Liam's death, his parents were being asked how they would want the announcement about his death to be worded - as a "fall or suicide?"

On the same day, a note was released to the school saying that most suicides are 90% caused by mental illness, perhaps sending a message to other students that they should not follow his example (they claim that they were trying to prevent copycat suicides) but interpreted by others in the community as implying that Liam was mentally ill.

The letter that could have changed everything

To make matters worse, Mrs. Mann never met with the family, not even to express her condolences. She left the Philippines to be with her family in South Africa before an investigation was started. She has since resigned from the school.

Her account of the events that transpired would have been helpful, but even a copy of the apology letter that Liam submitted to her was only given to Mrs. Madamba two months after her son's suicide.

The mother claims that the letter contained red flags that would alarm anyone who reads it. Mrs. Mann claims she was only able to read the note days after it was given to her.

It has also been confirmed that the report submitted by an Independent Review Panel (IRP) was edited by the school's Council of Trustees before being released.

This makes it seem like the school is trying to cover up some deficiencies although, during a Senate hearing, Simon Mann, the headmaster, admitted, "I think it would be fair to say we accept that there was a connection between Liam being dealt with at school and the consequences that occurred."

The Madamba family's search for peace and closure continues

On one hand, some people hold Liam's parents responsible for either not being in touch with their child or overprotecting him - not raising him to be resilient enough to face challenges. On the other hand, the actions of Mrs. Mann in response to his first time offense was very different from the provision in the school's handbook: that first time offenses should be penalized with a 15-minute detention.

READ: What's the difference between child discipline and punishment?

Whether the school really did something wrong and if it is liable for Liam's death will be decided by the courts. However this case is resolved, we really hope that the Madamba family and everyone involved finds peace and closure.

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