Law & Courts

Judge Blocks Six Columbine Suits Against District, Employees

By Mark Walsh — December 05, 2001 3 min read
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A federal judge last week dismissed six lawsuits against the Jefferson County, Colo., school district and seven school employees stemming from the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School.

U.S. District Judge Lewis T. Babcock of Denver ruled that the school defendants were entitled to immunity from state and federal liability claims raised on behalf of several of the students killed or wounded by Columbine students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.

“Harris’ and Klebold’s actions on April 20, 1999, were the predominant, if not sole, cause of plaintiffs’ injuries,” the judge said in one of several Columbine-related opinions announced on Nov. 27.

Judge Babcock also dismissed most actions against Jefferson County law-enforcement agents, but he allowed a suit filed by the family of teacher David Sanders to proceed. Mr. Sanders bled to death after waiting more than three hours for medical attention while authorities secured the building.

The judge said police officers’ failure to come to the teacher’s aid until long after it was known the two gunmen had committed suicide was “shocking to the conscience of this federal court.”

Mr. Sanders’ family, as well as several other plaintiffs, sued only law-enforcement officials.

But other plaintiffs also sued the 89,000-student school district and its employees, alleging that the violence could have been prevented had educators familiar with the two gunmen responded to warning signs.

Such signs, according to those plaintiffs, included school video projects by Mr. Harris and Mr. Klebold depicting the use of guns, violent themes in their writing assignments and Web site content, and statements the two made about blowing up their school in the year before the slayings.

High Hurdles

Judge Babcock concluded that some Jefferson County educators had acted negligently in regard to the warning signs about the two students. Mr. Harris’ video-production teacher, for example, “was privy to information that demonstrated Harris’ and Klebold’s long-time obsession with violent themes and ideas,” the judge said.

But the teacher’s failure to take action did not amount to “willful and wanton” conduct under Colorado law, the judge held.

He also rejected arguments that the district and educators should be held liable for allowing what plaintiffs characterized as a Lord of the Flies environment at Columbine High School that tolerated bullying and other forms of student harassment.

“While reprehensible if true, [it] is not conscience-shocking in a 14th Amendment substantive due process sense,” Judge Babcock said.

In the end, the plaintiffs’ claims failed because of U.S. Supreme Court and lower-court rulings that have set high hurdles for removing the protections governments and their officials enjoy against being sued.

“To conclude that the Columbine educators’ conduct produced plaintiffs’ injuries requires connecting a series of ‘if ... then ...’ propositions [that] are speculative at best,” Judge Babcock said in Castaldo v. Stone, the main opinion giving his legal reasoning about the suits against the school defendants.

James A. Cederberg, the lawyer for Richard R. Castaldo, a student who was paralyzed after being shot during the attack, said he was disappointed the judge did not “look at the bigger picture.”

“Children have a right to some reasonable amount of protection while they are attending a public school,” he said.

“These kids did everything but rent out a billboard across from the school to announce what they were going to do,” Mr. Cederberg said of the Columbine gunmen.

His clients have not yet decided whether to appeal, he said.

W. Stuart Stuller, the lawyer defending the school district and its employees in the lawsuits, said that despite winning dismissals, his clients had a reserved reaction to the rulings. “We don’t consider that there is a victory,” he said. “Something terrible happened on April 20, 1999, and this is part of the recovery.”

Judge Babcock’s opinions were thorough, Mr. Stuller said, because they carried arguments through various stages of analysis even when the judge concluded that the plaintiffs had failed to clear an early hurdle.

Even though the defendants won immunity, “certainly every teacher in the country is on a state of alert to look for signs that something is going on with one of their students,” Mr. Stuller said.

He said one lawsuit against the school defendants remains pending before Judge Babcock. Also pending are various lawsuits against the parents of Mr. Harris and Mr. Klebold and against individuals who allegedly supplied them with firearms. Some other suits against those defendants have been settled.

A version of this article appeared in the December 05, 2001 edition of Education Week as Judge Blocks Six Columbine Suits Against District, Employees

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