Law & Courts

Federal Appeals Court Rejects Civil Rights Suit by Parkland Survivors

By Mark Walsh — December 14, 2020 3 min read
Sara Smith, left, and her daughter Karina Smith visit a makeshift memorial outside the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in 2018, where 17 students and staff members were killed in a mass shooting.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

A federal appeals court has thrown out a lawsuit brought by 15 students who survived the fatal 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., rejecting their claims that failures by various public officials to prevent the violence violated their federal constitutional rights.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta, upheld a federal district court in dismissing the key claim in the students’ suit—that incompetence by public safety and school officials violated the students’ right to substantive due process under the Fourteenth Amendment.

The suit argued that the due-process clause was violated because the officials infringed the students’ “clearly established right to be [free] from deliberate indifference to substantial known risks and threats of injury.”

But the 11th Circuit court, in its Dec. 11 opinion in L.S. v. Peterson, said the students faced an insurmountable barrier to their 14th Amendment claim because they were not in the custodial care of any of the officials named as defendants in the same way that institutionalized or incarcerated individuals are under a custodial relationship with state officials.

“Ordinarily there are no custodial relationships in the public-school system, even if officials are aware of potential dangers or have expressed an intent to provide aid on school grounds,” Judge William H. Pryor Jr. wrote for a unanimous panel. “Because the students were not in custody at school, they were not in a custodial relationship with the officials.”

No ‘Conscience-Shocking’ Behavior

The lawsuit stems from the Feb. 14, 2018, incident in which the shooter, a former Stoneman Douglas High School student with a record of potential warning signs for violence, entered the freshman building at the high school and killed 17 students and employees and injured 17 others.

Among the defendants in the lawsuit were Scot Peterson, who was then the school resource officer who failed to enter the building to confront the shooter; Andrew Medina, a school security monitor who recognized the shooter as a potential danger but did not confront him or “call a code”; Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel; and Broward County School Superintendent Robert W. Runcie.

The suit alleged that policies of Israel, Runcie, and Broward County inadequately trained their employees for a mass school shooting.

A federal district court dismissed Runcie, Israel, Medina, and some other defendants from the suit in 2018. The trial court allowed certain claims against Peterson to proceed to discovery, but later granted summary judgment in his favor. The students then appealed to the 11th Circuit the dismissal of their key due-process claim.

Pryor, writing for the 11th Circuit panel, said that in the absence of a custodial relationship between the students and officials, the defendants’ conduct would have to be “arbitrary” or “conscience shocking” for the students to have a case, but their suit failed to allege any such conduct.

“A shooting is an occasion calling for fast action, where officials must make split-second judgments—in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving,” Pryor said. “When split-second judgments are required, an official’s conduct will shock the conscience only when it stems from a purpose to cause harm. … The students fail to allege that any official acted with the purpose of causing harm.”

A school shooting was akin to a prison riot, Pryor said, when officials must make hasty decisions in violent and chaotic circumstances.

“Absent intentional wrongdoing, we cannot review those split-second decisions under the due-process clause,” he said.

Runcie remains the superintendent of the Broward County school system. Peterson was fired and later charged with child neglect for failing to confront the shooter. The shooter is awaiting trial, which has been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

There are other civil suits that remain pending from the Parkland case. In August, a federal district judge allowed a lawsuit to proceed against the Federal Bureau of Investigation to proceed over the bureau’s alleged mishandling of tips about the shooter.

Commenting has been disabled on effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
What’s Next for Teaching and Learning? Key Trends for the New School Year
The past 18 months changed the face of education forever, leaving teachers, students, and families to adapt to unprecedented challenges in teaching and learning. As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Law & Courts Texas Attorney General Sues More School Districts That Require Masks
The Texas attorney general's office anticipates filing more lawsuits against districts flouting the governor’s order. Will Dallas be next?
Talia Richman, The Dallas Morning News
4 min read
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton speaks at the Austin Police Association in Austin, Texas, on Sept. 10, 2020.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton speaks at the Austin Police Association in Austin, Texas, on Sept. 10, 2020.
Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP
Law & Courts Can They Do That? Questions Swirl Around COVID-19 School Vaccine Mandates
With at least one large school district adopting a COVID-19 vaccine mandate, here is a look at the legal landscape for such a requirement.
5 min read
Image of a band-aid being placed on the arm.
Law & Courts High Court Justice Rejects Student's Bid to Block Removal Over Sexual Harassment Claim
Justice Elena Kagan denied a California student's effort to return to school after his 'emergency' suspension under Title IX regulations.
3 min read
The Supreme Court in Washington as seen on Oct. 7, 2020. After more than a decade in which the Supreme Court moved gradually toward more leniency for minors convicted of murder, the justices have moved the other way. The high court ruled 6-3 Thursday along ideological lines against a Mississippi inmate sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for fatally stabbing his grandfather when the defendant was 15 years old. The case is important because it marks a break with the court’s previous rulings and is evidence of the impact of a newly more conservative court.
The U.S. Supreme Court as seen on Oct. 7, 2020.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Law & Courts Gunmaker Is Seeking School Records of Children Who Died in the Sandy Hook Massacre
Families want a court order to keep subpoenaed school records for five children and four educators who died in the 2012 attack confidential.
Edmund H. Mahony, Hartford Courant
2 min read
A sign is seen outside Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
A sign is seen outside Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Patrick Raycraft/Hartford Courant via TNS