Law & Courts

Judge Blocks Six Columbine Suits Against District, Employees

By Mark Walsh — December 05, 2001 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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

Events

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.
Sponsor
Mathematics Webinar
Addressing Unfinished Learning in Math: Providing Tutoring at Scale
Most states as well as the federal government have landed on tutoring as a key strategy to address unfinished learning from the pandemic. Take math, for example. Studies have found that students lost more ground
Content provided by Yup Math Tutoring
Classroom Technology Webinar Building Better Blended Learning in K-12 Schools
The pandemic and the increasing use of technology in K-12 education it prompted has added renewed energy to the blended learning movement as most students are now learning in school buildings (and will likely continue

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 Opinion What the Law Says About Parents' Rights Over Schooling
The rallying cry of “parental freedom” perpetuated racial segregation, writes a legal scholar. So why would we let it dictate curriculum?
Joshua Weishart
5 min read
People hold signs and chant during a meeting of the North Allegheny School District school board regarding the district's mask policy, at at North Allegheny Senior High School in McCandless, Pa., on Aug. 25, 2021. A growing number of school board members across the U.S. are resigning or questioning their willingness to serve as meetings have devolved into shouting contests over contentious issues including masks in schools.
People at a school board meeting in late August protest the mask policy set by the North Allegheny school district in Western Pennsylvania.
Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP
Law & Courts Justice Dept. to Pay $127.5M to Parkland Massacre Victims' Families
Attorneys for 16 of the 17 killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland said they had reached a confidential monetary settlement.
Terry Spencer, Miami Herald
2 min read
In this Feb. 15, 2018, file photo, law enforcement officers block off the entrance to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., following a deadly shooting at the school.
In this Feb. 15, 2018, file photo, law enforcement officers block off the entrance to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., following a deadly shooting at the school.
Wilfredo Lee/AP Photo
Law & Courts Can Public Money Go to Religious Schools? A Divisive Supreme Court Case Awaits
The justices will weigh Maine's exclusion of religious schools from its "tuitioning" program for students from towns without high schools.
13 min read
The Carson family pictured outside Bangor Christian School in Bangor, Maine on Nov. 5, 2021.
Institute for Justice senior attorney Michael E. Bindas, left, accompanies Amy and David Carson who flank their daughter, Olivia, outside Bangor Christian Schools in Maine in early November. The Carsons are one of two families seeking to make religious schools eligible for Maine's tuition program for students from towns without high schools.
Linda Coan O’Kresik for Education Week
Law & Courts Students Expelled, Suspended for 'Slavery' Petition Sue District
The lawsuit claims the officials violated the students’ First Amendment, due process, and equal protection rights.
3 min read
Image of a gavel.
Marilyn Nieves/E+