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Cleveland v. Taft Union High School District

Psychologist Susan Ashley Outlines Student’s Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Following School Shooting, En Route to $3.8M Verdict

The Expert: Susan Ashley, a California-based psychologist, details the psychological impact of the shooting on the plaintiff.

By Dr. Gary F. Gansar, MD, FACS
Senior Physician Medical Director, AMFS

Testifying  in a 2019 California trial, Susan Ashley, a California-based psychologist, details her examination of the plaintiff, who was shot by a former classmate. The plaintiff claimed that the school district was responsible because it ignored “red flags” in the shooter’s behavior. The expert in juvenile and adult psychological issues expounded on the details of the psychological impact of the shooting on the plaintiff.

In this clip, the psychologist is asked about how she arrived at her conclusions. As background, she explains that there is a standardized reference to help mental health clinicians make a diagnosis. This is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. This tome lists the criteria that must be satisfied in order to justify a particular psychological diagnosis. She explains that there have been five versions of this book and that it is imperative to rely on the most updated version to make a diagnosis. This, she states, is the standard of care for a mental health professional attempting to make such a diagnosis. With that background, she explains to the jury that she diagnosed the plaintiff with post-traumatic stress disorder, among other conditions.

Ashley explains that the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder has specific criteria that must be fulfilled. First, the patient has to have been exposed to a traumatic event that was perceived as a life-threatening event, either personally or as a witness. The second criteria discussed includes “intrusive symptoms.” This refers to the victim re-experiencing the trauma in an intrusive way. The thoughts about the experience invade when they are not consciously called upon. This pops into the mind as nightmares or flashbacks involving the sensations of the previous event. These intrusive symptoms can be physically manifested in ways that vary depending upon the person—a fast heart rate, sweating, abdominal discomfort, etc.

Dr. Ashley interviewed the plaintiff six years after the shooting and found that he continued to think about the event “every day.” He ruminates on the things that he missed as a result of the shooting, including not being able to finish high school and graduate. Nightmares can be persistent and deprive him of sleep; at one point they kept him awake for three consecutive days and nights. He could not fall asleep unless he “passed out” from fatigue. He found himself trying desperately to avoid thinking about the event, as certain thoughts and places would cause him to have anxiety and its physical manifestations. This made him avoid crowds and spend most time at home. The fears experienced in these situations are not entirely irrational, the expert explains, since a person who has actually been through such a trauma will naturally try to avoid this happening again.

Dr. Ashley presents herself with the intelligence and clarity of a true professional. The jury agreed with her assessment, awarding the plaintiff $3.8 million.

About the Author Dr. Gary F. Gansar, MD, FACS

Gary Gansar, MD, is residency-trained in general surgery. He served as Chief of Surgery and Staff at Elmwood Medical Center and on the Medical Executive Committee at Touro Infirmary and Mercy Hospital in New Orleans, LA. Dr. Gansar was Board Certified in general surgery while in active practice. He joined AMFS in 2015 as a Physician Medical Director.

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