No parent ever wants to have to entertain the idea that their child could be the victim of a school shooting. But there’s no denying that mass shootings have rapidly become a more prevalent problem all across the U.S., including those taking place on school campuses.
If you’re a parent with a child who attends school, no matter their age or whether it’s a public or private school, you might have questions about who, if anyone, can be held responsible if the unthinkable happens, and your child suffers severe injuries or other harm at the hands of another while at school. But thanks to something called “sovereign immunity,” some of the answers to your most pressing questions may come as a surprise.
Q: What is sovereign immunity, and how does it relate to school shootings?
A: Under a rule known as “sovereign immunity,” it’s generally difficult to successfully sue any type of government entity at any level. And because public schools are funded, owned, and operated by state governments, they fall under these sovereign immunity rules as well. However, as with many laws and rules that exist in our country, certain exceptions have been built into these rules. If your child has been injured or harmed due to the negligence of school officials or employees, you may be able to sue the school district responsible. But this ability is also heavily reliant on the circumstances of how the negligence occurred.
Q: Why does sovereign immunity exist in the first place?
A. Often when entities are sued in court, the outcome of the case can lead to a change in precedence, or a shift in the way processes and even laws are interpreted and enforced. So, if lawsuits were able to be freely filed against the government in its various forms, it could potentially lead to a never-ending adjustment of government processes and laws, which generally is not the most effective way for a government and its various entities to run.
Q: Can the school be held responsible for an active shooter harming my child?
A. Again, it depends on the circumstances. Sovereign immunity would likely keep a school and its staff protected from lawsuits if it’s found that they did everything in their power and according to protocol in order to protect their students and staff against a shooter. But if during the process of investigation, it’s discovered that the school staff behaved in a negligent manner that then contributed to a child being harmed by the shooter in some way, the parents of that child may be able to file a lawsuit against the school district for damages.
Q: Are private schools protected by sovereign immunity?
A: No, they are not. Sovereign immunity is specifically reserved for government entities, so private schools and private educational facilities—meaning those facilities that are not funded or operated by the government in some form—do not fall under these rules. If your child is the victim of a shooting or other personal injuries while attending their private school, the process of filing a lawsuit against the school may be easier, and the outcomes more feasible in terms or receiving damages.
Q: What protocols are my child’s school required to follow during a school shooting scenario?
A: Protocols for active shooter and other dangerous incidents on school campuses vary from state to state and even from district to district. But every public school has protocols that they must follow in these scenarios, and the school staff members go through training and education of some kind either prior to or during their tenure that instructs them on these protocols and what they are required to do.
For example, teachers may be required to lock students into their classrooms once they are informed of a shooter on campus, and if they are found to have violated that procedure and a child was harmed because of it, that may be grounds to sue. But it’s important to familiarize yourself with the specific protocols of your child’s school in order to determine whether or not those protocols were violated in some way.
Q: What does the process of suing a government entity consist of?
A: The statute of limitation in cases where sovereign immunity would usually protect the defendant tends to be shorter than most other personal injury cases as well. Whereas many personal injury statutes of limitation last several years, in some cases of suing a public school district, the time period may be as short as a few months.
Finally, when it comes to lawsuits filed against government entities, there is often a heavy cap limiting the amount of damages that can be claimed by the plaintiff. Whereas some other types of personal injury lawsuits can lead to millions of dollars awarded depending on the injuries suffered by the victim, damages awarded in these cases might be limited to only a few hundred thousand dollars for injuries, and no ability to claim any punitive damages at all.
Q: Can public schools claim to have no responsibility for shooters on their campus?
A: Outside the scope of sovereign immunity and how it protects public schools, when it comes specifically to shootings on public school campuses, an arguable reason why the school will deny any responsibility is simply because the shooter often has nothing to do with the school itself. School staff often can’t predict when or why a shooter might decide to target their campus, especially if there are no signs or indicators leading to such an event. Also known as the criminal act exception.
Though it isn’t always the case, these shooters are often thought to target schools not because they have an association with the school, but because they are approachable and effective targets. Most public schools aren’t fortified like other government buildings, and very often have free access to outsiders, or are easier for outsiders to access. But because of the ongoing rise in such incidences, that factor is starting to change.
Q: Can I sue my child’s school for personal injuries unrelated to school shootings?
A: The answer here, again, is that it depends on the circumstances of how the personal injuries happened. If your child was harmed due to the negligence of a school staff member, then it may be possible to sue. If, for example, you discover that your child’s teacher took physical disciplinary action against your child that resulted in their injury, you may have a case. It should not matter how much frustration or anger your child might have caused that teacher for them to have that reaction; per their employment contracts and many state laws, teachers are not permitted to use physical violence against their students, and thus their behavior could be considered negligent, or even criminal.
Q: How do I know if I have a right to sue my child’s public school district?
A: The best way to find out if you might have a case to file against your school district after your child is harmed at school is to contact an attorney who has practiced in cases similar to yours. The right personal injury attorney will have experience with cases involving the abuse or injury of children, has a good track record with personal injury cases overall, and is familiar with local and state laws and other obstacles that may present themselves during the course of a case that involves sovereign immunity. Even better, the attorney you’re considering will have a positive track record of winning cases and helping their clients receive meaningful compensation in some form for the harm caused.