A Broken Trust
Inside the Rift Between Parkland and Its School District
Over 100 Pending Lawsuits Blame the Parkland Shooting on the School District. Do They Stand a Chance?
The nation’s sixth-largest school district has received at least 103 notices of pending legal claims related to its role in the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High last February.
Just one example: In March, lawyers for a Stoneman Douglas student who is not 18 notified Broward County Public Schools of their intent to sue, saying the girl suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after witnessing confessed killer Nikolas Cruz shoot several classmates and kill two of her friends as she hid in a classroom closet inside Stoneman Douglas.
The district’s failure to protect Stoneman Douglas students from harm was “unreasonable, callous and negligent,” the notice reads.
All told, the Parkland massacre left 17 dead, 17 wounded, and potentially thousands more traumatized. The notices of pending legal action come from the families of both student and teacher victims, as well as students and staff members who survived the attack. One of the notices was filed by newly elected Broward school board member Lori Alhadeff, a Parkland parent whose 14-year-old daughter Alyssa was killed in the attack.
Because Florida law requires that state agencies must be given six months’ notice before a lawsuit can be filed, the notices of pending claims submitted to the district give the fullest sense of the scope of the possible legal actions the Broward district may face.
In addition, survivors and family members of Parkland victims have already filed numerous lawsuits against Cruz, his mother, the family with whom he was living at the time of the shooting, three different mental health agencies that allegedly evaluated Cruz, and the companies that manufactured and sold the AR-15 assault rifle he used during his rampage.
It remains unclear just how much exposure the 271,000-student Broward County Public Schools may have. Under Florida law, state agencies such as school districts have partial immunity from such claims, with a cap of $300,000 in potential damages for incidents involving multiple victims.
The district has indicated that it believes that figure represents its total potential liability. Some Parkland families are fighting that in court, however. They argue that each injury and death at Stoneman Douglas should be counted as its own incident, which would mean a $200,000 cap on damages for each impacted individual.
Either way, though, responding to all those lawsuits is almost certain to cost the school district a small fortune in legal fees.
That's one reason why Broward Schools has lent its support to a nascent effort currently under discussion in the Florida legislature. A “claims bill” would establish a new fund dedicated to victims’ families, with families who agree to forego suing the district likely becoming eligible for a share of the available money.
“I want to make sure these families are compensated to the highest extent possible,” Superintendent Robert Runcie said in an interview.
For some victims’ families, though, lawsuits are as much a vehicle to get answers and accountability as an opportunity for financial relief.
Andrew Pollack’s 18-year-old daughter Meadow Pollack, for example, was killed inside Stoneman Douglas. Pollack has notified Broward Schools of his intent to sue. He has also filed a wrongful death suit naming eight additional parties he believes are responsible for his daughter’s death.
“I’m able to subpoena people and expose them,” he said. “There are so many incompetent things that are going to come out.”
Long Odds of Success
The Parkland notices focus on several alleged failures by Broward Schools.
Some complainants believe the district failed to act on numerous troubling incidents involving Cruz. Others cite unclear policies about how schools should respond to active shooters, or lax training and oversight for school security staff.
Similar claims have been made about other school districts after other shootings, said Charles B. Vergon, a lawyer and professor of educational leadership at Youngstown State University in Ohio. But families have often struggled to gain legal traction, he said.
In May, for example, a Connecticut judge threw out a lawsuit against the Newtown school district that had been filed by the families of two children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012.
The families had argued that the district was negligent on several fronts, including a failure to provide classroom doors that could be locked from the inside and a failure to properly train and supervise staff on lockdown procedures.
But the judge wrote that “emergencies, by their very nature, are sudden and often rapidly evolving events.” She ruled that under the circumstances, school employees were shielded by governmental immunity, saying they could not have been expected to have acted “in a prescribed manner.”
Other suits against districts have met similar fates.
In 2012, for example, a 17-year-old student shot and killed three people inside Ohio’s Chardon High School. Victims’ families attempted to sue the Chardon school district, its superintendent and board, the high school and middle school principal, and other school officials. The victims’ families claimed the district’s negligence and misconduct had led to the wrongful deaths of their children.
A judge dismissed most of the claims and eventually concluded there was no evidence of malicious intent, bad faith, or reckless conduct by the education officials.
“While there are a few cases where the victims’ families have successfully sued school districts or law enforcement officials, those are still relatively rare,” Vergon said.
Suing Gun Manufacturers
Other types of lawsuits, naming other defendants, are also flowing out of Parkland.
In addition to notifying Broward Schools of their intent to sue, for example, Fred and Jennifer Guttenberg have filed suit against the U.S. government over the killing of their 14-year-old daughter Jaime. The FBI has acknowledged mishandling two tips regarding Cruz.
The Guttenbergs also joined with Max Schachter, whose 14-year-old son Alex was killed at Stoneman Douglas, in exploring a lawsuit against American Outdoor Brands, which manufactures the AR-15 assault rifle used by Cruz, and Sunrise Tactical, the store that sold it to him.
“Gun manufacturers and distributors are frequently shielded from such suits,” said Vergon, noting that a similar attempt by families of Sandy Hook victims has so far been unsuccessful.
In general, he said, victims of school shootings are most likely to succeed when they sue the shooters directly, or their parents.
In some such cases, insurance policies held by the perpetrators’ families kick in. The families of the two student shooters who killed 13 people in 1999 at Columbine High in Littleton, Colo., for example, eventually settled with victims’ families for $1.6 million.
As in other areas of American life, the legal process can be slow and unsatisfying, but can also yield something some victims may find just as valuable as money.
“Lawsuits in school shootings can help families uncover facts about their child’s death that might not otherwise be known and may be helpful in creating some degree of closure,” Vergon said.
“The impact of the lengthy and adversarial process, however, can take a toll on the family.”