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By: Jake Daly
Sadly, our nation’s schools are not free from shootings and other violent crimes. When such crimes occur on private property, the laws of many states provide the victims a remedy (money damages) against the owner of the property and/or the operator of the business located on the property. But what about crimes that occur on public property, particularly a school campus?
For example, Nikolas Cruz killed 17 students and school officials and injured 17 more during a shooting rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on February 14, 2018. Fifteen students who survived the incident, but who claim to have suffered psychological injuries because of it, sued Broward County, Andrew Medina (a school monitor), Robert Runcie (school superintendent), Scott Israel (Broward County Sheriff), Jan Jordan (captain with the Broward County Sheriff’s Office), and Scot Peterson (school resource officer) for violating their substantive due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Specifically, the plaintiffs alleged that the defendants had a constitutional duty to protect them from Cruz and that they violated this duty by intentionally disregarding warnings about Cruz, by maintaining a policy of allowing “killers to walk through a school killing people without being stopped,” and by failing to provide adequate training to school officials. The defendants denied liability on the ground that there is no constitutional duty to protect students from being harmed by third parties.
The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida and was assigned to Judge Beth Bloom, who was nominated by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the Senate in 2014. In her order granting the defendants’ motions to dismiss, Judge Bloom relied on United States Supreme Court precedent holding that the Due Process Clause is “a limitation on the State’s power to act, not . . . a guarantee of certain minimal levels of safety and security.” In other words, “nothing in the language of the Due Process Clause itself requires the State to protect the life, liberty, and property of its citizens against invasion by private actors,” such as Cruz. Nevertheless, the Due Process Clause does impose a duty on state actors to protect people who are in their custody from harm by third parties. But, as Judge Bloom ruled, this duty does not apply to this case because students are not considered to be in the custody of the state such that they have been deprived of their ability to take care of themselves. Accordingly, the defendants did not violate the plaintiffs’ substantive due process rights.
This case serves as a good reminder that the defendant in any case must have owed the plaintiff a legal duty to act or refrain from acting in a specific way. A moral duty will not suffice. Liability cannot be based on how innocent or sympathetic the plaintiff is. Nor can liability be based on the fact that a tragic event has occurred. There is no question that the plaintiffs in this case were innocent and “deserving,” but that is not enough. There must have been a legal duty. The plaintiffs in this case lost because there is no constitutional duty owed by school officials to protect students from harm inflicted by third parties. To some, this rule may be seen as unfair and contrary to common sense, but there are good policy reasons for it. After all, the purpose of the Due Process Clause was to protect people from the state, not to ensure that the state protected them from each other.
For additional information, please contact Jake Daly at [email protected] or (770) 818-1431.