After the shootings, the lawsuits
NEA Today; Washington; Feb 2000; Michael D Simpson;

Source (subtitle): a newspaper for members of the National Education Association
Volume: 18
Issue: 5
Start Page: 18
ISSN: 07347219
Subject Terms: School violence
All six of the fatal school shootings in the last two years have produced massive lawsuits by the victims' families. Families are suing everyone from school boards and principals to gun makers and Hollywood.

Full Text:
Copyright National Education Association Feb 2000
Who should pay when the unthinkable happens?

All six of the fatal school shootings of the last two years have produced massive lawsuits by the victims' families.

Who are the families suing? School boards, principals, teachers, parents, students, gun makers, and even Hollywood.

* In Jonesboro, Arkansas, the families of the four students and one teacher who were killed have sued the two shooters (age 11 and 13), their parents, the grandfather of one perpetrator (from whom they took the guns), and the two manufacturers of the guns.

The gun makers are liable, the families argue, because they failed to equip the guns with safety locks. And the grandfather should pay because he didn't keep the guns locked up.

* The shooting of nine students, two fatally, in Pearl, Mississippi, prompted a lawsuit against the district, the police department, and the parents of students who belonged to the same satanic cult as the killer and allegedly knew of his plans. The school is liable, the families claim, because officials failed to act after reading the shooter's violent writings in his English class journal.

* The parents of victims of Kip Kinkel's murderous rampage at Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon, have sued him and his deceased parents' estate, claiming that the parents failed to exercise parental control and negligently gave him the rifle used in the school shootings.

* In Edinboro, Pennsylvania, the family of teacher John Gillette has sued the 14-year-old who gunned him down at a school dance, along with his parents, claiming that they negligently gave their mentally disturbed minor child access to the handgun he used to commit the murder.

* In West Paducah, Kentucky, the parents of several victims have filed two separate lawsuits. One against some 30 school officials, including school board members, teachers, and principals, claims that the 14-year-old killer had written two violent stories in school about killing "preppies." The claims against these defendants have been dismissed, but the plaintiffs say they plan to appeal.

A second lawsuit seeks more than $100 million in damages from some 25 media and entertainment companies for producing the violent movies and video games that allegedly taught and incited the perpetrator to kill.

* And in Littleton, Colorado, the families of 18 victims have taken the first step in filing a civil lawsuit, notifying the county sheriff, the school district, and the killers' parents of their intent to sue.

Will any of these lawsuits succeed? That's hard to say, and the answer likely will vary from state to state.

Many school districts and their employees enjoy immunity from suit for injuries students suffer at school.

But several courts have recently allowed parents to sue school employees for their children's suicides, at least in cases where the employees had learned that the student was planning to commit suicide and did nothing. The same principle may be applied in the school shootings cases.

Last year, courts in Illinois, Georgia, New York, and California allowed victims of gun violence to sue the gun industry.

Borrowing a tactic from the tobacco litigation, 27 municipalities also have filed 17 lawsuits against gun makers.

Claims against video game and movie makers may also succeed. A Louisiana court last year allowed a shooting victim to sue the producers of the movie "Natural Born Killers." And one expert is certain that the Littleton families will sue the maker of Doom, the video game the two Columbine killers played obsessively, according to reports.

Taking threats of violence seriously
In this post-Columbine era, the police are taking no chances. They're jailing virtually any student who threatens violence, "jokingly" or not.
* In suburban Washington, D.C., two 10-years-olds were arrested on felony charges in December after they allegedly put soap in their teacher's water.
* Last November, a seventh-grader from Ponder, Texas, was held in a juvenile detention for five days after the Halloween story he wrote for an English class described shooting his teacher and two classmates.
* Last fall, in Wilmington, North Carolina, a jury convicted a teenager of "communicating threats" for typing "The end is near" on a high school computer soon after the Columbine tragedy. He claimed to be joking about Y2K.
* An Atlanta high school student was jailed for three days last spring for writing in his journal about a deranged student who goes on a rampage at his school. The charge? Making "terrorist threats."
* Police in Cleveland last October arrested four students and charged each with five felony counts arising out of an alleged plot to use guns and homemade bombs to kill teachers and students at South High School.
* In November, a Michigan teenager charged with conspiracy to commit murder pleaded guilty to a lesser charge stemming from a plot to massacre classmates at a Port Huron middle school. Two other students in the plot are still awaiting trial.
* And in Virginia Beach, Virginia, the police arrested a student for writing an essay that included a description of a student tying a nuclear bomb to himself. The charge was "threatening to bomb or bum."
Reasonable people can disagree over whether the police overreacted in these cases, but one thing is certain: School officials ought to monitor student behavior and take action if they believe that a student might commit acts of violence.
NEA last year sent every state affiliate a large packet of materials on stopping school violence. Additional information about keeping schools safe appears on the NEA Web page at

[Author note]
-Michael D. Simpson NEA Office of General Counsel

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