School District Could Be Liable for Student Shooting of Classmate

Police and emergency crews respond to Sal Castro Middle School following a shooting on Feb. 1, 2018. (Credit: KTLA) Photo Source: Police and emergency crews respond to Sal Castro Middle School following a shooting on Feb. 1, 2018. (Credit: KTLA)

A school shooting by one seventh grader against a classmate could expose school districts to liability for negligent supervision of a student who was allowed to bring a loaded firearm to school. A California Court of Appeal reversed a summary judgment ruling in favor of one of the nation’s largest school districts and remanded the injured student’s claim for further proceeding on the issue of whether the school was negligent.

Christina, a middle schooler, brought a gun to her science class one day to show it off to her classmates. The gun accidentally fired, shot I.A., a male classmate in the head, and injured two others. I.A. filed a personal injury suit against the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) for premises liability and general negligence. LAUSD asked for and was granted summary judgment from Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Jon R. Takasugi.

A unanimous 3-0 unpublished decision by Division Eight of California’s Second District Court of Appeal reversed the premises liability claim and denied LAUSD’s immunity liability claim. The opinion, authored by presiding justice Maria F. Stratton, remanded the negligence matters for further to determine whether LAUSD should have “conducted more or better random weapons searches of its students and of the girl who brought the gun to school.”

The shooting incident began at 8 a.m. in Sherry Zeldorf’s science class at San Castro Middle School. Christina, a student in the class, told a few of her classmates that she had a gun and asked them if they wanted to see it. They did not. After hearing a loud noise, I.A. saw blood and realized he had been shot in the head. When the police arrived, they determined that the shooting was accidental. They found a 9 mm. handgun in Christina’s waistband and arrested her. Later, at the police station, she said, “I didn’t mean for anybody to get hurt, it’s all my fault. I didn’t know the gun was loaded.” I.A. also sued Christina’s parents, but that suit is not at issue in the case against LAUSD.

I.A. sued the school district for premises liability, alleging the school had “actual and constructive notice” of a dangerous condition on public property. This count was dismissed because I.A. failed to prove how the physical attributes of the school property created a dangerous condition.

The plaintiff also sued for general negligence, alleging LAUSD negligently “owned, operated, managed, maintained, supervised, controlled and inspected San Castro Middle School.” He argued that the school district “negligently hired, retained, trained, instructed, and supervised” those who were supposed to watch the students.

In addition to opposing the premises liability claim, LAUSD’s summary judgment motion had five other grounds: immunity and lack of vicarious liability, which they claimed were required under a section of the California Education Code; lack of a duty to support a direct liability claim; lack of a special duty to foresee that a student would bring a gun to school; and belief that LAUSD employees acted reasonably.

The opinion reviewed each of the grounds, finding, “The law regarding the duty of supervision on school premises is very, very well established.” Stratton wrote, “It is the duty of the school authorities to supervise at all times the conduct of the children on the school grounds and to enforce those rules and regulations necessary to their protection.” She concluded that “The school district is liable for injuries which result from a failure of its officers and employees to use ordinary care…” She wrote that “the trial court framed the issues…incorrectly” and again emphasized the school district’s duty to supervise its students because of the “special relationship that exists between a school district and its students.”

Stratton went on to explain the two duties that LAUSD has to its students. First, there is a general duty to protect its students from harm, “in this case to prevent students from bringing dangerous weapons…to campus.” Second, there is a duty to protect students if an individual does bring a gun onto school premises. LAUSD argued it had appropriate warning signage and that teachers used metal detectors to conduct random searches. The record showed that although Christina had previously conducted “minor incidents” of bullying, knife possession and violence, Stratton wrote that those “incidents are not enough to create a triable issue of fact concerning whether Christina presented a heightened risk of bringing a gun or other dangerous weapon to school.”

The opinion then discussed LAUSD’s duty after Christina brought a gun to school. Stratton wrote that the facts of the shooting were not clear. The trial court did not determine where the gun was when it was discharged or whether the teacher, Ms. Zeldorf, had seen or heard Christina’s classroom statements to other students about her gun. It disagreed with the trial court’s conclusion that “as a matter of law events in the classroom unfolded so rapidly that supervisory personnel had no time to discover that Christina had a gun and/or to respond.” A jury should be able to decide whether the science teacher used due care when she supervised her class.

When the jury hears this remanded case, its verdict could create new benchmarks for classroom supervision. What must school districts do to carry out their duty to protect students? Will all students be required to pass through metal detectors each morning? What will teachers be required to do in their classrooms?

Currently, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 29 states now allow school personnel to carry guns on school grounds. According to the New York Times, the strategy of arming teachers is “opposed by Democrats, police groups, teachers’ unions and gun control advocates.” They claim that giving teachers guns will create more, not less, risk. But, as weekly death tolls continue to rise, recent polls are showing that more and more parents are approving the idea.

Maureen Rubin
Maureen Rubin
Maureen is a graduate of Catholic University Law School and holds a Master's degree from USC. She is a licensed attorney in California and was an Emeritus Professor of Journalism at California State University, Northridge specializing in media law and writing. With a background in both the Carter White House and the U.S. Congress, Maureen enriches her scholarly work with an extensive foundation of real-world knowledge.
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