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Anniversary of Sandy Hook tragedy renews issue of school shooting liability

With the one-year anniversary of the tragic mass school shooting at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary just behind us, the question of liability in school shootings (and other school-related injuries) has once again arisen. Many questions have been brought up by the media. Should the school be held responsible for shootings and other mass injuries? Do the intervening acts of a psychotic student or stranger negate the school district’s liability? What about if a teacher or administrator is also a victim? Does that in any way impact the school’s standard of care?

The answers to these and other questions are not easy. Unfortunately, there is no “cookie cutter” response to a school shooting. Many high-profile on-campus shooting cases in recent years – Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook and others – have resulted in civil claims being brought against the perpetrator (or perpetrators), his or her family, the school, individual staff members, the school district or the state. Some of those cases have been dismissed, some were decided in favor of the victims, some were decided in favor of the defendants, and others have settled.

The mixed results serve to highlight the difficulty in proving cases such as these. To find a school district as a whole or particular school administrators at fault in one of these cases, there needs to be a strong and persuasive showing that the district/staff were negligent, and that the negligence actually led to the death or injury of the victims.

This standard is very high in a way that some may find unfair to grieving families, but their burden of proof is high for a reason. In some situations, the school or district simply had no possible way of stopping the actions of a deranged individual.

For example, the recently released final police report on the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting shows that the school actually locked their doors from the inside once the school day began, had a policy in place to screen visitors wishing to gain access to the school and, though the school wasn’t formally “locked down” (since the principal was one of the first victims), many teachers took the initiative to lock their classrooms from the inside, an action that is credited with saving many innocent lives. The perpetrator was not cleared to enter the school; he shot his way in. No level of preparation by the school district – short of an armed guard outside the door, something that is neither practicable or desired in most areas – could have foreseen or prevented the tragedy that took place there.

Contrast this with what happened at Virginia Tech. In that case, the school was aware that a gunman had killed several people in a residence hall, but officials failed to warn students of his presence. After leaving the residence hall, the gunman entered other buildings on campus and killed dozens more people. Several families sued the school, arguing that the school (and by extension, the Commonwealth of Virginia, since it is a state-funded facility) failed in its duty to keep students safe by not alerting them to the danger; courts agreed and found in favor of the victims, awarding some multi-million-dollar settlements.

Regardless of the facts of the case or the number killed, a school shooting is always a tragic event. In certain circumstances, a victim’s family might be able to uncover answers and seek justice by filing a civil lawsuit against school officials.

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