By Maya Lora
A former Washington and Lee University student is suing the school and a mental health counselor for medical malpractice and negligence.
In a lawsuit filed Jan. 8 in Rockbridge County Circuit Court, Kionte Burnette alleges counselor Rallie Snowden failed to take the proper steps to help him when he informed her of his plan to commit suicide on Oct. 18, 2017.
Washington and Lee addressed the lawsuit for the first time on Jan. 15 in an email sent out by Sidney Evans, vice-president for student affairs and dean of students.
“While we are aware of the community’s interest based on this media coverage,” she wrote, “we cannot share any information regarding an individual student’s situation or health records, nor are we able to comment on pending litigation.”
Evans also addressed mental health, describing it as “a serious one [issue] both here at W&L and on college campuses nationwide.”
In the lawsuit, Burnette claims he tried to kill himself after meeting with Snowden and informing her of his plan to jump off a high bridge across the football field. He also claims Snowden did not perform an evaluation at the time of his meeting or report what she knew to anyone else.
Snowden, who continues to work for the university, declined to comment, claiming “confidentiality and the nature of an ongoing lawsuit.”
The lawsuit tells the story of a football player who struggled to adapt to life at Washington and Lee, a battle that intensified when he injured his foot and could not practice or play with the rest of the team. His depression and social anxiety worsened over the course of the fall semester of 2017, culminating in his mid-October suicide attempt, according to the lawsuit.
According to the lawsuit, Burnette’s social anxiety turned into social paranoia.
“Burnette was expressing social anxiety to the point of believing that people were watching him and trying to touch him at many social occasions and that other students did not want him on campus,” the lawsuit said.
Doctors at the University of Virginia’s hospital who cared for Burnette after his suicide attempt confirmed he was suffering from paranoid thinking and psychotic symptoms at the time of the attempt, according to the lawsuit.
On the morning of Oct. 18, Burnette asked his Asian Art history professor if he could be excused from an upcoming museum field trip and go to the museum with his parents, who live in Salem, instead. The lawsuit said Burnette’s depression and anxiety were too overwhelming for him to attend the trip.
According to the lawsuit, the professor told Burnette he would need permission from a university dean to be excused from the trip. Burnette spoke with senior class dean Tammy Futrell, and informed her he was feeling depressed, although he did not mention his suicidal thoughts, the lawsuit said.
Futrell then brought Snowden into her office to speak with Burnette, and left to give the two of them privacy. The lawsuit claims Burnette told Snowden about his depression and anxiety, and he described his plan to jump off the bridge to kill himself.
According to the lawsuit, Snowden left the room after just five to 10 minutes with Burnette, saying she had another appointment. Snowden allegedly did not perform an evaluation on Burnette, but she told him to attend classes and football practice and then sleep at the student health center.
Burnette went to his classes but stayed in his room rather than going to dinner, football practice or the health center, the lawsuit said. His football coach, Garrett LeRose, declined to comment for this article.
According to the lawsuit, Snowden called the health center at 7:20 p.m. to inform members of the staff that Burnette would be staying there, but did not inform them of his suicidal thoughts.
When Burnette did not arrive, Snowden followed up by sending him a text at 9:03 p.m. Getting no response, she called him, the lawsuit said. Burnette told Snowden he wasn’t going to the health center and Snowden asked Burnette to promise not to hurt himself, and he said he wouldn’t.
Shortly after the phone call ended, Burnette unsuccessfully tried to hang himself in his dorm room, according to the lawsuit.
Several hours later, the lawsuit said, Burnette made a second attempt by stepping off a gym balcony. He lost consciousness.
When he woke up, he did not seek medical attention but went back to his room, where the lawsuit says he believed he would die in his sleep. He was in so much pain the next morning that he called for help and was taken to the hospital at the University of Virginia.
He suffered several injuries, including facial and skull injuries, which required surgery.
At the hospital, the lawsuit said, he was placed on suicide watch for several days after a note was found in his pocket. He later returned home with his parents and spent the rest of the semester there on medical leave.
According to the lawsuit, he tried to return to campus for the winter semester, but was denied entry by Associate Dean of the College Gwyn Campbell because his application was a day late.
Burnette now attends another university. He did not respond to requests for comment and his lawyers refused to comment.