California School Threat Assessment Team Members Not Immune from Liability for School Shooting
On January 10, 2013, high school student B.O. shot Plaintiff Cleveland, another student, in the stomach at Taft Union High School (TUHS). Prior to the shooting, B.O. had described plans for committing acts of violence at school in several incidents during 2012 and 2013. The first was on a bus ride in February 2012 after a field trip, when B.O. described shooting someone at school and blowing up the auditorium.
The next school day after the bus incident, a threat assessment was initiated. The threat assessment team (TAT) included the principal, assistant principal, school psychologist, and superintendent. TUHS prepared a Threat Assessment Report after interviewing B.O., his mother, his guidance counselor, and faculty involved in the bus incident. The report rated B.O. as having “insufficient evidence of violence potential, sufficient evidence for the unintentional infliction of emotional distress upon others.”
Later incidents by B.O. involved drawings depicting a shooting at school, mentions of a hitlist, and warning classmates not to come to school multiple times. TUHS investigated these incidents but did not act on them. In December 2012, B.O.’s older brother obtained a shotgun. On January 9, 2013, B.O. warned a classmate not to come to school the next day and also told the classmate that he was going to kill Plaintiff. On January 10, 2013, B.O. took the shotgun to school and shot Plaintiff.
After the shooting, Plaintiff sued TUHS for negligence, premises liability, and negligent infliction of emotional distress. TUHS, as a public entity with some state immunity for injuries resulting from acts or omissions of its employees (akin to Illinois’ Local Governmental and Governmental Tort Immunities Act), filed a pretrial motion seeking to preclude evidence, opinion, or argument at trial about the sufficiency, accuracy, or frequency of TUHS's threat assessment. The trial court granted the motion in part but also concluded there were a range of things, not covered by the immunity, that TUHS could have done which the jury might find breached their duty of care toward Plaintiff.
During the trial, each side presented expert testimony on the effectiveness of TUHS’s threat assessment. The jury found that TUHS's employees were 54% responsible for Plaintiff’s injuries and the trial court entered a judgment for $2,052,000 against TUHS based on their employees’ negligence. TUHS appealed and claimed, in part, that its employees were immune under state law. The California appellate court disagreed with TUHS, finding that TUHS employees breached their duty of care to Plaintiff because 1) the threat assessment was not carried out by the TAT collectively, 2) the school resource officer should have been a core member of the TAT, 3) the TAT failed to communicate amongst themselves about B.O., 4) the TAT failed to adequately communicate with B.O.'s parent, 5) the TAT failed to recommend counseling to B.O.'s parent as an intervention technique, and 6) the TAT did not continue to collectively monitor B.O. and reassess his safety plan. Accordingly, the appellate court affirmed the trial court judgment and also ordered TUHS to pay Plaintiff’s costs on appeal.
This case, although not binding in Illinois, serves as a useful reminder of the limits of state law immunity and the diligence required when implementing threat assessments.
Michelle Yang, IASB Law Clerk