Schools are responsible for the safety of our children. When a child is injured or killed on school premises, the school district may be held liable. This is the case also in school shootings. However, there are limits. The primary limit is that the person or family suing the school district must show that the school had some kind of notice that the shooter was likely to commit a violent act with a firearm. With no pre-warning that such might happen, the school district is not liable. A recent case against the Tacoma School District highlights that. Read the Tacoma News Tribune article here.
The details of the case are sad. A 17 year old high school student was gunned down by a fellow Foss High School student who suffered from schizophrenia. The family of the boy who was killed filed a civil suit, claiming damages against the school district for its failure to protect their son. Attorneys for the family of the deceased contended that the District had notice the boy was dangerous by virtue of his recognized affliction. In dismissing the case, the Pierce County Superior Court said that the law does not recognize a diagnosis of schizophrenia as “notice” to the school that this student was particularly dangerous and required extra monitoring and supervision around others. The Court of Appeals agreed. That means the court decided State law does not support the contention that the school district owed any duty to protect other students at the school from potential danger posed by this mentally ill student.
Studies show that individuals affected by schizophrenia are not typically violent toward others. Instead, they tend to be reclusive and are usually more harmful to themselves. Tragically, schizophrenics are far more likely than others to commit suicide. You can read more about the disorder at the National Institute of Mental Health’s website. For many families, this is a very real and devastating condition. For our society, it’s something we could do better to learn about and understand.
What does this mean for you and me? Cases against government entities seem to evoke quite a bit of passionate debate as to their merits from both sides of the issue. Many people feel that government simply has no obligation to protect citizens from known dangers – that we are all charged with “personal responsibility” rising to the level of keeping ourselves safe regardless of our ability to know of a danger. Of course, the law does not support that idea. In fact, many laws on the books are there because the government has at one time or another attempted to evade responsibility to carry out its functions – policies it writes itself, often – such as maintaining streets in safe order, putting noncompliant offenders back in jail or enforcing DUI restrictions.
The law always requires that an entity have “notice,” meaning there was ample opportunity for the responsible party to learn of the risk. One simply cannot hold another liable for injuries or harm when the party had no knowledge of the risk or dangerous condition. In this case, the court’s ruling means that knowledge of mental instability on the part of school districts is not “notice” of a dangerous propensity. It means that going forward, knowing about a person’s mental instability may not be enough to merit having to protect others from them.