Broward County Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie at left. Clockwise from left are parents Tony Montalto, Ryan Petty, Max Schachter, Andrew Pollack, Fred Guttenberg, and Lori Alhadeff.
Law & Courts Project

Over 100 Pending Lawsuits Blame the Parkland Shooting on the School District. Do They Stand a Chance?

By Benjamin Herold — December 12, 2018 5 min read
  1. Chapters
  2. 01.
    Introduction
  3. 02.
    Determining Liability
  4. 03.
    Long Odds of Success
  5. 04.
    Suing Gun Manufacturers
Law & Courts Project

Over 100 Pending Lawsuits Blame the Parkland Shooting on the School District. Do They Stand a Chance?

By Benjamin Herold — December 12, 2018 5 min read
  • Introduction

    The nation’s sixth-largest school district has received at least 103 notices of pending legal claims related to its role in the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High last February.

    Just one example: In March, lawyers for a Stoneman Douglas student who is not 18 notified Broward County Public Schools of their intent to sue, saying the girl suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after witnessing confessed killer Nikolas Cruz shoot several classmates and kill two of her friends as she hid in a classroom closet inside Stoneman Douglas.

    The district’s failure to protect Stoneman Douglas students from harm was “unreasonable, callous and negligent,” the notice reads.

    All told, the Parkland massacre left 17 dead, 17 wounded, and potentially thousands more traumatized. The notices of pending legal action come from the families of both student and teacher victims, as well as students and staff members who survived the attack. One of the notices was filed by newly elected Broward school board member Lori Alhadeff, a Parkland parent whose 14-year-old daughter Alyssa was killed in the attack.

    Because Florida law requires that state agencies must be given six months’ notice before a lawsuit can be filed, the notices of pending claims submitted to the district give the fullest sense of the scope of the possible legal actions the Broward district may face.

    broken trust lawsuits scott peterson

    In addition, survivors and family members of Parkland victims have already filed numerous lawsuits against Cruz, his mother, the family with whom he was living at the time of the shooting, three different mental health agencies that allegedly evaluated Cruz, and the companies that manufactured and sold the AR-15 assault rifle he used during his rampage.

  • Determining Liability

    It remains unclear just how much exposure the 271,000-student Broward County Public Schools may have. Under Florida law, state agencies such as school districts have partial immunity from such claims, with a cap of $300,000 in potential damages for incidents involving multiple victims.

    The district has indicated that it believes that figure represents its total potential liability. Some Parkland families are fighting that in court, however. They argue that each injury and death at Stoneman Douglas should be counted as its own incident, which would mean a $200,000 cap on damages for each impacted individual.

    Either way, though, responding to all those lawsuits is almost certain to cost the school district a small fortune in legal fees.

    That’s one reason why Broward Schools has lent its support to a nascent effort currently under discussion in the Florida legislature. A “claims bill” would establish a new fund dedicated to victims’ families, with families who agree to forego suing the district likely becoming eligible for a share of the available money.

    “I want to make sure these families are compensated to the highest extent possible,” Superintendent Robert Runcie said in an interview.

    From the formal notice to file a wrongful death claim against the Broward County school district on behalf of Linda Beigel Schulman, mother of slain Marjory Stoneman Douglas teacher Scott Beigel.

    For some victims’ families, though, lawsuits are as much a vehicle to get answers and accountability as an opportunity for financial relief.

    Andrew Pollack’s 18-year-old daughter Meadow Pollack, for example, was killed inside Stoneman Douglas. Pollack has notified Broward Schools of his intent to sue. He has also filed a wrongful death suit naming eight additional parties he believes are responsible for his daughter’s death.

    “I’m able to subpoena people and expose them,” he said. “There are so many incompetent things that are going to come out.”

  • Long Odds of Success

    The Parkland notices focus on several alleged failures by Broward Schools.

    Some complainants believe the district failed to act on numerous troubling incidents involving Cruz. Others cite unclear policies about how schools should respond to active shooters, or lax training and oversight for school security staff.

    Similar claims have been made about other school districts after other shootings, said Charles B. Vergon, a lawyer and professor of educational leadership at Youngstown State University in Ohio. But families have often struggled to gain legal traction, he said.

    From the formal notice to file a claim for monetary damages against the Broward County school district on behalf of Anthony Borges, a student grievously wounded in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting, and his family.

    In May, for example, a Connecticut judge threw out a lawsuit against the Newtown school district that had been filed by the families of two children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012.

    The families had argued that the district was negligent on several fronts, including a failure to provide classroom doors that could be locked from the inside and a failure to properly train and supervise staff on lockdown procedures.

    But the judge wrote that “emergencies, by their very nature, are sudden and often rapidly evolving events.” She ruled that under the circumstances, school employees were shielded by governmental immunity, saying they could not have been expected to have acted “in a prescribed manner.”

    Other suits against districts have met similar fates.

    In 2012, for example, a 17-year-old student shot and killed three people inside Ohio’s Chardon High School. Victims’ families attempted to sue the Chardon school district, its superintendent and board, the high school and middle school principal, and other school officials. The victims’ families claimed the district’s negligence and misconduct had led to the wrongful deaths of their children.

    A judge dismissed most of the claims and eventually concluded there was no evidence of malicious intent, bad faith, or reckless conduct by the education officials.

    “While there are a few cases where the victims’ families have successfully sued school districts or law enforcement officials, those are still relatively rare,” Vergon said.

  • Suing Gun Manufacturers

    Other types of lawsuits, naming other defendants, are also flowing out of Parkland.

    In addition to notifying Broward Schools of their intent to sue, for example, Fred and Jennifer Guttenberg have filed suit against the U.S. government over the killing of their 14-year-old daughter Jaime. The FBI has acknowledged mishandling two tips regarding Cruz.

    From the formal notice to file a wrongful death claim against the Broward County school district on behalf of the estate of Jaime Guttenberg, a student killed in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

    The Guttenbergs also joined with Max Schachter, whose 14-year-old son Alex was killed at Stoneman Douglas, in exploring a lawsuit against American Outdoor Brands, which manufactures the AR-15 assault rifle used by Cruz, and Sunrise Tactical, the store that sold it to him.

    “Gun manufacturers and distributors are frequently shielded from such suits,” said Vergon, noting that a similar attempt by families of Sandy Hook victims has so far been unsuccessful.

    In general, he said, victims of school shootings are most likely to succeed when they sue the shooters directly, or their parents.

    In some such cases, insurance policies held by the perpetrators’ families kick in. The families of the two student shooters who killed 13 people in 1999 at Columbine High in Littleton, Colo., for example, eventually settled with victims’ families for $1.6 million.

    As in other areas of American life, the legal process can be slow and unsatisfying, but can also yield something some victims may find just as valuable as money.

    “Lawsuits in school shootings can help families uncover facts about their child’s death that might not otherwise be known and may be helpful in creating some degree of closure,” Vergon said.

    “The impact of the lengthy and adversarial process, however, can take a toll on the family.”

The Education Week Research Library contributed to this report.

Lead Graphic: Broward County Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie at left. —Josh Ritchie for Education Week

Graphics by Gina Tomko

Photography by Josh Ritchie for Education Week

Events

Classroom Technology Webinar How Pandemic Tech Is (and Is Not) Transforming K-12 Schools
The COVID-19 pandemic—and the resulting rise in virtual learning and big investments in digital learning tools— helped educators propel their technology skills to the next level. Teachers have become more adept at using learning management
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
Data Webinar
Using Integrated Analytics To Uncover Student Needs
Overwhelmed by data? Learn how an integrated approach to data analytics can help.

Content provided by Instructure
School & District Management Live Online Discussion Principal Overload: How to Manage Anxiety, Stress, and Tough Decisions
According to recent surveys, more than 40 percent of principals are considering leaving their jobs. With the pandemic, running a school building has become even more complicated, and principals' workloads continue to grow. f we

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 Critical Race Theory Law Violates Teachers' Free Speech, ACLU Argues in New Lawsuit
The lawsuit alleges Oklahoma's law harms students of color and weakens what all students learn about the state's history.
4 min read
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, above, is named in a new lawsuit alleging that the state's recent law restricting teaching on race and sex is unconstitutional.
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, above, is named in a new lawsuit alleging that the state's recent law restricting teaching on race and sex is unconstitutional.
Sue Ogrocki/AP
Law & Courts Parkland Victims' Families Reach $25M Settlement With Broward School District
The largest payments will go to the 17 families whose children or spouses were killed in the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High.
Scott Travis, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
3 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 Justice Sotomayor Denies Bid to Block Vaccine Mandate for New York City School Employees
The Supreme Court justice's refusal involves the COVID-19 vaccine requirement in the nation's largest school district.
2 min read
In this Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020 file photo, senior Clinical Research Nurse Ajithkumar Sukumaran prepares the COVID 19 vaccine to administer to a volunteer, at a clinic in London. British scientists are beginning a small study comparing how two experimental coronavirus vaccines might work when they are inhaled by people instead of being injected. In a statement on Monday, Sept. 14, 2020, researchers at Imperial College London and Oxford University said a trial involving 30 people would test vaccines developed by both institutions when participants inhale the droplets in their mouths, which would directly target their respiratory systems.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor on Oct. 1 denied a request to block a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for employees of the New York City school system.
Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP
Law & Courts Here Are the Upcoming Supreme Court Cases That Matter for Schools
Major cases on school choice and religious schools will be heard, along with a case on whether school boards can reprimand outspoken members.
9 min read
In this June 8, 2021 photo, with dark clouds overhead, the Supreme Court is seen in Washington.
The U.S. Supreme Court's new term opens in early October with several cases that could impact K-12 schools.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP