Court weighs ‘custodial duty’ in Parkland school shooting

by | Nov 23, 2020


In a case filed by current and former students who said they suffered psychological injuries, a federal appeals court is considering constitutional arguments about whether Broward County officials had a “custodial” duty to protect students from the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

The case went to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals after a federal district judge in December 2018 sided with a series of defendants — including Broward County, Superintendent of Schools Robert Runcie, former Sheriff Scott Israel and former school-resource officer Scot Peterson — and dismissed the case.

A panel of the Atlanta-based appeals court was slated to hear arguments last week but agreed to a request to call off the hearing and decide the dispute based on already-filed briefs.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of current and former Marjory Stoneman Douglas students who alleged that the defendants had a duty “to act when faced with a known threat of danger and that defendants’ conduct was arbitrary and  conscience-shocking” in violation of constitutional due-process rights, according to a court filing.

The lawsuit, at least in part, focuses on a failure to prevent accused shooter Nikolas Cruz, a former Marjory Stoneman Douglas student, from entering the Parkland campus and the actions of law-enforcement and security officers after shots began. Cruz, who continues to await trial, is accused of killing 17 students and faculty members and wounding 17 others.

“Defendants had access to information before and during the  shooting that could have prevented or stopped the violence,” the plaintiffs’ attorney, Solomon Radner, wrote in the appeal. “Given the knowledge and facts alleged to be known by defendants, combined with  defendants’ responsibilities and lack of any response, plaintiffs respectfully ask this court to find a custodial relationship between plaintiffs and defendants sufficient to render some duty to protect plaintiffs and all students and staff at risk of harm.”

But in a series of briefs, attorneys for the defendants disputed that such a custodial relationship existed that would allow a claim for violation of due-process rights. Runcie’s attorneys, for example, pointed to similar arguments being dismissed after the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado.

“This case arises out of tragic circumstances that have impacted the entire Broward County community,” Runcie’s attorneys wrote in a brief at the appeals court. “However, the law is clear that the superintendent and the other defendants in this case had no constitutional duty to protect the plaintiffs from the actions of an independent third party. This court should decline the plaintiffs’ invitation to expand the parameters of substantive due process rights defined by the Supreme Court and this (appeals) court.”

In her December 2018 ruling dismissing the case, U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom wrote that the “critical question the court (Bloom) analyzes is whether defendants had a constitutional duty to protect plaintiffs from the actions of Cruz.” She said the plaintiffs would “have to be considered to be in custody” for such a duty to exist.

“Plaintiffs suggest that the essential nature of a public school’s role and control over its students requires that schools provide protection and safety for their students,” Bloom wrote. “However, the suggestion that school attendance equates to the level of custody implicating a constitutional obligation to protect has been expressly rejected by the Eleventh Circuit (Court of Appeals).”


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