New District Liability for School Violence Mulled by Colorado Lawmakers

By Evie Blad — April 15, 2015 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Cross-posted from the Rules for Engagement blog

When an act of violence happens on a K-12 campus, does that school bear any responsibility?

And should victims and victims’ families be able to sue districts for failing to secure facilities or to properly identify and address the needs of violent or aggressive students?

Those are questions Colorado lawmakers are grappling with as they consider legislation that would waive schools’ governmental immunity in violent situations.

A bill advanced Monday by the state’s Senate judiciary committee would lower the threshold of liability, allowing victims to claim damages of $350,000 from schools if a court finds violent acts on campus or at school related activities were “reasonably foreseeable.”

Creation of the bill was motivated in part by the family of Claire Davis, a student who died after the 2013 shooting at Arapahoe High School in Littleton. Her family, who is in arbitration with the district, told the committee that the school was aware that the shooter, fellow student Karl Pierson, who shot himself on site, was violent and aggressive, and that it didn’t do enough to stop him after he made clear threats. A sheriff’s report found he entered through a door that was frequently propped open, even though school security plans said it should remain locked.

“Karl was on a mission to shoot up the entire school,” Claire Davis’ father, Michael Davis, said in testimony to the committee.

Currently, schools can be more easily sued if students fall on poorly cleared icy sidewalks than if a violent attack occurs on campus, the family said.

“Please don’t make the next mother beg for answers of why her child was killed in a public school in the state of Colorado,” said Claire Davis’ mother, Desiree Davis, in testimony to the committee.

Most parents would be surprised to learn that schools aren’t held to this standard of liability, supporters of the bill said.

But opponents of the bill, including representatives of school boards and charter school organizations, said it could have unintended consequences. Schools may be more likely to suspend or expel students struggling with depression or mental health issues out of fear they may pose a threat, they said. That runs counter to another goal of many policymakers in Colorado: reducing exclusionary discipline in schools.

And “many if not most acts of school violence could be deemed reasonably foreseeable in retrospect” by juries who don’t understand all of the factors schools must weigh in making safety decisions—like the cost of facilities upgrades, fire codes, and the need for resources in other areas, like academics, Jan Tanner, a member of the Colorado Springs School District 11 school board and a representative of the Colorado Association of School Boards, said in committee testimony.

School representatives said the bill would lower the threshold of liability to the lowest standard, making schools more liable than colleges, police departments, and other government agencies would be in the event of an attack. That would cause an increase in insurance rates and may spur some policymakers to drive money out of the classroom and into safety efforts they might not otherwise pursue, witnesses said.

Paula Reed, a teacher at Columbine High School, said some teachers there quit assigning personal or reflective writing assignments after the 1999 shootings there for fear of liability if students wrote something dark or troubling. Reed said she’s intervened in several students’ lives, referring them to counseling after seeing concerning elements in their assignments. Introducing a new standard of liability may have a chilling effect, reducing such teacher-student interactions, she said in her testimony.

“Students suffering with problems they cannot speak aloud will suffer in silence,” she said. “Lowering the standard this much is a disincentive for teachers to connect.”

But lawmakers who voted to advance the bill said more needs to be done to hold schools accountable for their safety efforts.

“This bill is consistent with current parental expectations. Bar none,” Sen. Mark Scheffel, a Republican, said in the meeting.

Threat Prevention

What do you think? Is it reasonable to say that schools should be able to prevent violent attacks?

In recent years, school safety experts have advanced a threat assessment approach as a school safety best practice. Because even the Secret Service cannot define a clear profile for school attackers, schools should focus their energy on responding to the mental health and personal needs of students with concerning behavior by assembling multi-disciplinary teams to address those issues, they argue. But I’ve never heard any of those advocates champion the approach as a fail-proof method of preventing attacks. I’ll be curious to talk to more school safety advocates about Colorado’s approach as safety efforts advance.

Experts have also said it’s not wise for schools to focus all of their efforts on costly technology. Instead, supportive school climate efforts and well-practiced routines are critical, they’ve said. An expensive, automatic lock on an exterior door does little good if a student props it open, for example.

Would that be a “reasonably foreseeable” circumstance? And would lowering the liability threshold for schools make them safer?

What do you think?

Related: In School Shootings, ‘He Just Snapped’ Is a Myth, Psychologist Says

Photo: Students comfort each other at Arapahoe High School in Centennial, Colo., where a student shot at least another student at the school before he killed himself in a 2013 attack. -Ed Andrieski/AP

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.