Amid School Violence, Colorado Mulls Districts’ Liability

By KRISTEN WYATT | April 15, 2015

A novel approach to make public schools liable for campus violence under a measure is advancing in Colorado, even as lawmakers from both parties wonder whether liability will prevent the next mass shooting.

The bill that won bipartisan approval 4-1 in the Senate Judiciary Committee waives the state’s governmental immunity and allows victims or their relatives to collect up to $350,000 for violence “when the harm is reasonably foreseeable.”

The bill is a response to several fatal school shootings, most recently a 2013 shooting at Arapahoe High School in Littleton. The parents of the victim, Claire Davis, have said the school ignored repeated warning signs from shooter Karl Pierson, who turned the gun on himself after shooting Claire.

“Please don’t make the next mother beg for answers of why her child was killed in a public school in the state of Colorado,” said Desiree Davis.

The Davises said the liability measure would give schools more incentive to identify dangerous children and to share more information when violence occurs.

The bill was originally retroactive to 2013, presumably to allow the Davises to sue. But the family has since agreed to work with a mediator on the question of what the high school could have done to prevent the shooting by Karl Pierson, who police say had made threats.

Governmental-immunity guidelines vary by state. But Colorado’s proposal appears to be a novel approach of setting special standards for schools.

Colorado is one of at least 33 states that limit monetary damages that may be recovered from judgments against the state. Lawmakers here have waived or raised the caps in particular situations before, most recently in 2013, in response to a deadly wildfire that was started by a state-prescribed burn.

Sponsors of the school liability legislation argued Monday that the Colorado’s current school-liability cap needs adjusting. Public schools currently face more potential liability from slip-and-fall accidents caused by poor snow removal than from school shootings, they argued.

“Parents have a reasonable expectation that when they send their children to a public school, their children will be safe,” said Senate President Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs and one of the bill’s sponsors.

The panel sided with Cadman despite arguments from schools that the measure wouldn’t prevent school violence, just increase insurance liability. “It’s very easy to go back and question, could more have been done?” said David Olson, a lawyer who represented Jefferson County Schools after the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School.

Other attorneys were more blunt, saying that schools would start expelling mentally ill students rather than try to treat them.

“Kids won’t get second chances anymore,” said Sonja McKenzie, lawyer for the Cherry Creek School District.

Lawmakers seemed sympathetic to schools facing higher insurance bills, and wondered openly whether school violence could be prevented.

“I don’t know if it’s going to save another life. My hope is that it will,” said Sen. Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, who voted for the liability.

The bill has excellent prospects moving forward. House Speaker Dickey Lee Hullinghorst is the main sponsor from the House, where the bill would head next.

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