District Not Liable in After-School Shooting, Court Rules

By Mark Walsh — August 27, 2013 2 min read
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The Detroit school district and three school employees could not be held liable in a shooting near a chronically violent high school that left one student dead, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The case stems from a 2008 shooting outside Henry Ford High School in Detroit, a school described in court papers as a place with a long history of gangs and violence. A fight between two students in the hall was broken up by school security guards, who sent the students back to class. After school, one student involved with the fight and two of his friends allegedly opened fire on the other fighter, Christopher Walker, who was killed. Three other students were injured.

The victims (including the family of the dead student) sued the shooters, as well as the Detroit school system, the Henry Ford High principal, and the school security guards.

Against the school defendants, the plaintiffs relied primarily on a “state-created danger theory,” which generally means the government did some affirmative act that exposed a person to danger by a third party. They said that the merger of Henry Ford High with nearby Redford High School established a state-created danger because officials knew the two schools had rival gangs. They also argued that a 25-year history of gang violence in and around Henry Ford High represented a “public nuisance” attributable to the school system and its employees.

A federal district court found the alleged shooters (it’s not clear whether they were criminally convicted) liable, but it dismissed the Detroit school system and the school employees.

In an Aug. 26 decision in Walker v. Detroit Public School District, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, unanimously upheld the lower court.

The court noted that there is a state-created danger theory of liability available only in limited circumstances.

“In this case, neither merging the high schools nor breaking up the fight satisfies the affirmative act element of a state-created danger claim,” the appeals court said.

“Turning to the fight on the day of the shooting, the plaintiffs contend that, if school officials had intervened more effectively, the shooting may have been averted,” the court said. “Even assuming this is true, there was no evidence presented that, by breaking up the fight, school officials created or greatly increased the risk that [the shooter] would return after school and open fire into a crowd.”

“The harm inflicted on the plaintiffs is tragic,” the court added. “However, the violence that occurred was unquestionably committed by private actors, and the plaintiffs have neither stated a plausible claim that the school district, nor advanced sufficient factual support for the claim that the school officials, played a part in creating or greatly increasing the danger that the plaintiffs would be victims of gun violence as they left school.”

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.