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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.
By Donal A. Hardin
April 15, 2016
“Parents have a reasonable expectation that when they send their children to a public school that the school and its employees will have taken steps to keep the children safe. The general assembly finds that it is now foreseeable that violence in schools could occur.”
Colorado State Bill 15-213, Sec. 1(2)
We have heard that we need more focus on mental health resources to help prevent school shootings. It is also asserted that gun ownership policy must be re-examined whenever a school shooting occurs.
Both premises are, in part, stipulated. But I would like to offer a different, and perhaps more finite, point for consideration. While certain pre-event variables are favored in reports, the legal and civil responsibility of school administrations to prepare and respond to these events is often underreported.
For instance, mental health and gun ownership policies were two primary issues at the crux of the media coverage after the tragedy in Newtown, Conn. However, little has been reported about the lawsuit filed by some parents of the children slain at Sandy Hook Elementary on the grounds that “security measures at the school weren’t adequate.” In January, parents filed a $110 million suit in Washington State against both the shooter’s father and the school, in part due to alleged negligence that could have forewarned of the attack. In June 2015, Colorado attached civil tort claim levels to student safety by passing legislation codifying that, “school districts can be sued and held liable for not taking reasonable steps to protect students from school shootings.” Colorado State Bill 15-213 also imposes “damages where that duty of reasonable care has been breached by a school district, charter school or their employees.”
These measures may only be the beginning. Responsibility for school safety became a prima facie duty of school administration since the Columbine massacre. Failures to provide some measure of preparation will be met with disbelief and outrage given the primacy and frequency of these events. Claims of ignorance, a lack of resources or unwillingness to train and prepare for student safety will not pass the tests of public or legal opinion. “I don’t have time” or “it’s not my job.” Sadly, I have heard these statements expressed at more than one campus. But they do offer excellent statements for class action attorneys in the aftermath of these tragic events. Subsequently, one might expect that the penalties and damages awarded to the victims’ families will only increase as the reasonable expectation of safety preparedness increases.
Media focus on issues of mental health and gun ownership, while appropriate and pertinent, often fail to communicate these emerging and objective legal standards. In the absence of such exposure, the pressure for necessary reforms and changes can remain unheralded as the countdown to the next tragedy continues. This point is made clearly in Colorado’s Senate Bill 15-213 Sec. 1(2), which:
“[F]inds and acknowledges that the sovereign immunity that has been extended to public school districts and to charter schools…can lead to inequitable results for students who are otherwise unable to protect themselves from serious bodily injury or death in the school environment. Moreover, the general assembly acknowledges that times have changed in this country and in this state because there have been so many acts of school violence in which students and teachers have been killed and injured by persons.”
As with so many legal and social issues, and in the absence of self-initiated actions and ethical forethought, responsibility for school safety at the campus- and district-wide levels are now being compulsorily addressed through civil tort liability. By now, expectations should be clear. School administrations and employees that are not engaged in proactive policymaking and staff and faculty training for school emergency preparedness may find themselves on the opposing side of public and legal opinions regarding their responsibilities and roles vis-à-vis school safety.
I teach criminal justice to college students. And although the topic is apropos to my content, it is always disturbing to ask if other instructors have mentioned or addressed classroom safety practices. Ask any class the basic hypothetical “what would we do if…” and you will likely be met with blank stares. This is understandable when no one has taught them to create a game plan and consider a response. But it is now socially and legally unacceptable to receive the same blank stares from faculty, staff and school administrators. If you fill one of these roles, I close by submitting a brief, non-exhaustive checklist for your consideration.
Author: Donal Hardin is a retired policing and corrections professional specializing in public safety ethics. Having filled various roles at institutions of higher learning, Donal is currently teaching criminal justice coursework. Donal holds a Ph.D. in public policy and administration, and a master’s degree in criminal justice. He can be reached at [email protected].