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School Violence and Liability

When school violence is discussed, the April, 1999, massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, represents the worst case this country has seen…so far: a teacher and twelve students were killed and twenty-three others were wounded by two teenaged students. And it could have been much worse. Had the most powerful of the suspects’ bombs detonated the death toll would likely have been in the hundreds.

Contrary to public opinion, local law enforcement and Columbine High School officials contended that they could never have predicted such an attack and thus should not be held responsible for not taking the steps to prevent it. Nor, they said, could they have responded more effectively to stop the carnage. And for the most part, the courts agreed, as evidenced by the fact that all but one of the many lawsuits filed against the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department were dismissed by a federal court judge in early 2002. The only civil action left standing was filed by the family of the teacher who was murdered. It was settled for a mere $1.5 million.

Although the Columbine event remains the most infamous of school attacks, it is certainly not the last to have occurred. Similar tragedies continue to claim young lives across the country. Additionally, ‘near misses’ that result in the seizure of weapons, “hit lists” and attack plans written in gruesome detail by students, occur with alarming frequency.

As a result, a defense of the sort previously asserted by public safety and school officials will likely ring hollow these days, not only with the parents of children who are victimized, but also with those who’ll serve as jurors in the civil trials which will assuredly follow. And a recent court ruling may signal the dawn of a new era regarding the level of responsibility, accountability and liability, assumed by school districts.

In June of 2003, the Indiana Supreme Court held that school districts can be sued by victims of campus violence. The case stemmed from the 1996 brutal beating of a student in the parking lot of North Central High School by four fellow teenaged students. A local court ruled that the school district was a public agency, and like law enforcement entities could not, as a general rule, be sued by a crime victim.

However, the Indiana Supreme Court, agreeing with the finding of the Indiana Court of Appeals, held that the school district and the private security company with which it contracted to patrol the campus did not enjoy such immunity.

In it’s finding, the court ruled that the 293 public school districts in the state must strive to provide a safe environment for children. The court established precedence when it opined that, “A school has no immunity for failing to prevent an assault and battery. It has the obligation to take reasonable steps to provide security on its premises, even if it has not adopted any rules or regulations prohibiting assaults.” The case will now be returned to the Marion County Superior Court for trial unless the school district can convince the State Supreme Court to reconsider its ruling. {Indiana Supreme Court Cause Number 49S02-0104-CV-193}

It is very improbable that both the Indiana Court of Appeals and the State Supreme Court will reverse themselves, thus their findings will likely stand. Might other courts rule similarly… especially in cases where lives are lost and it can be shown that reasonable efforts were not made to prevent the violence that claimed them? And might this expanded duty of care required of school districts be extended to local law enforcement. The answer seems obvious.

Regardless of the verdict rendered by the courts, the time has come for responsible parents, professional educators, public officials and local law enforcement to demand action. But all must recognize that necessary steps will likely be undertaken only if those demanding them become active participants in the process. Parents must attend school meetings to voice their heart-felt concerns. Educators must seek governmental support and funding and politicians must ensure that they’re provided. And patrol officers must visit schools in their beats to establish professional relationships with faculty and staff and work with them to prepare emergency response plans. For in the aftermath of a murderous rampage they will all be asked some difficult questions, the answers to which could forever haunt them: “Did we do all that we could have to prevent this? If we didn’t, then why not? Did we really believe that it could never happen here? How much money did we save…and how many lives did it cost?”

There are now many training resources available for parents, school officials and law enforcement: Public Agency Training Council Training in School related topics since 1987 Emergency Planning for America’s Schools from the U.S. Department of Education

School Safety Training Program “The Three R’s”

A 2 ½ hour video presentation outlining the program is also available

The National Crime Prevention Council

Click on: Stopping School Violence

School Violence Resource Center

Click on: Links of Special Interest to Law Enforcement

Threat Assessment in Schools – A Guide to Managing Threatening Situations and to Creating Safe School Climates

A comprehensive study conducted by the U.S. Secret Service and Department of Education

Order a printed copy


Doyle “D.T.” Wright is a Senior Instructor for the Public Agency Training Council. He retired from the Riverside County, California, Sheriff’s Department, and since 1998 has traveled throughout the country to provide law enforcement training related to officer survival, high risk warrant planning and execution, police action shootings and tactical response to dynamic events.

Author: D.T. Wright ID: LL82 Issue: SU1-2 Citation 1: Watkins v. Millenium School, 290 F.Supp. 2d 890 (So.Dist Ohio 2003)

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