La. District Shares Liability for Shooting, Court Rules

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School districts nationwide are battling a growing number of lawsuits seeking to hold them liable for violence on or near school grounds. Though most such attempts have failed, a state appellate court in Louisiana recently found a district partially responsible for the shooting of a student near a high school.

A panel of the Louisiana Court of Appeal affirmed a state trial judge's ruling that assigned partial liability to the New Orleans school district after a student was shot near his car outside Cohen High School in 1988.

A school security guard had warned the student, Donald Lewis, that three teenagers had been loitering near his car. But when Mr. Lewis asked the guard to escort him to the car, she refused, saying she was not responsible for security off school grounds.

Mr. Lewis was shot twice in the leg by a teenager after he got to his car. He sued the Orleans Parish school board, claiming negligence for the guard's refusal to escort him.

The trial judge ruled that the guard had a duty to protect Mr. Lewis in the face of a known threat. The judge assigned 20 percent of the blame for the shooting to the district and awarded Mr. Lewis about $15,000 in damages.

The appeals court affirmed that decision, ruling that the district's hiring of security guards showed that it recognized a duty to protect students from outside criminal threats. That duty extends to areas "contiguous and reasonably adjacent to the school grounds," the court said in its Dec. 15 ruling in Peterson v. Doe.

The appeals court, however, lowered the school board's liability for the incident from 20 percent to 15 percent and assigned 5 percent liability to Mr. Lewis, saying he could have waited for the teenagers to leave before going to his car.

But the security guard's "failure to provide requested assistance in the face of a known possible threat is obviously a breach of the duty to protect," the court said.

A student who was shot accidentally in a Chicago high school has failed in her attempt to hold the district liable for the presence of a gun on campus.

Roshawn Thames was injured when a gun in the book bag of another student went off in a classroom at Orr High School. Ms. Thames and her mother sued the district, alleging it should have. Ms. Thames and her mother sued the Chicago district, alleging the district should have installed metal detectors at the school.

A state trial judge denied the school board's motion to dismiss the case, ruling that the lawsuit included sufficient allegations that the district had a special duty to protect its students from guns. But a panel of the Illinois Appellate Court reversed the judge in December and ordered the case dismissed.

School officials' knowledge that some students brought weapons to school did not satisfy the legal standard for liability, which would have required that it have specific knowledge, or "unique awareness," about the gun at Orr High, the panel said in Thames v. Board of Education of the City of Chicago.

"Unique awareness requires knowledge of a particular danger to the particular plaintiff," the court said.

A federal jury has awarded nearly $400,000 to a Wisconsin guidance counselor who lost his job after he criticized his school district for trying to remove a book from a high school library.

The Rib Lake district retaliated against Mike Dishnow when it refused to renew his contract last year, the jury in U.S. District Court in Madison found.

Mr. Dishnow and his wife, a school librarian, criticized school officials in 1993 for trying to remove Forever, a Judy Blume novel about a teenage girl's first sexual experience. The school board later restricted access to the book but decided not to remove it.

Mr. Dishnow supported the book and criticized district officials in his column in a local newspaper. Several months later, his contract was not renewed. The district argued that the counselor was let go because of insubordination and unprofessional behavior, not because of his free-speech activities.

But the jury found in December that the district violated Mr. Dishnow's First Amendment rights.

"The message of this case is that the free-speech rights of public employees are important," said Daphne Webb, Mr. Dishnow's lawyer.

A federal appeals court has upheld a ruling that a district may impose speech restrictions on a guest lecturer at a school.

The Sag Harbor, N.Y., district in 1993 barred a board member from lecturing in its classes after he showed a high school mathematics class a photograph of partially naked women.

George Silano was explaining to the class a phenomenon known as "persistence of vision," which involves the brain's continuous perception of an image after it disappears. To illustrate the concept, he displayed photos that included a shot of two women who were naked from the waist up.

Mr. Silano later admitted the photo was inappropriate for a high school class and apologized. But when school officials barred him from lecturing and his fellow board members censured him, Mr. Silano sued, claiming his right to free speech had been violated.

A federal district judge ruled against him, and on Dec. 8 a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit rejected Mr. Silano's appeal.

School administrators can exert as much control over the speech of guest lecturers as that of teachers, the court said in Silano v. Sag Harbor Union Free School District.

Mr. Silano "had no First Amendment right to use a film clip showing bare-breasted women in a lecture to a 10th-grade mathematics class," the court said.

--Mark Walsh

Vol. 14, Issue 19

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