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.

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.

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