By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
A federal appeals court has upheld the dismissal of a suit filed by 15 students who claimed their civil rights were violated due to government blunders before and during the 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Expelled student Nikolas Cruz, armed with a semi-automatic rifle and multiple magazines, shot and killed 17 students and staff and wounded 17 others during the six-minute spree in Parkland.
The Parkland students sued Broward County, the Broward Sheriff’s Office, the Broward school district and several individuals, including school deputy Scot Peterson, five months after the shooting alleging the defendants’ actions were not only incompetent, but unconstitutional.
“The Broward County Sheriff’s Office failed to act on the ‘many dozens of calls’ it received that warned of Cruz’s dangerous propensities,” the students alleged, according to the appellate court’s decision. “Although Sheriff Scott Israel and Superintendent Robert Runcie knew that Cruz might be dangerous and Runcie was warned that the school had inadequate security, neither official attempted to improve school security. And Scot Peterson, the police officer in charge of school security, was nicknamed ‘Rod’— short for ‘retired on duty’ — for his ‘lackadaisical . . . approach.’ ”
The students said that Peterson and three other unknown police officers stood outside with their guns drawn but did not enter the building or attempt to stop the shooting. BSO Captain Jan Jordan, another defendant, repeatedly barred emergency responders from entering the building to stop Cruz or to aid his victims, the Parkland students said.
Miami U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom tossed the case in December 2018, deciding the students were not in a custodial relationship with the officials. ”The district court dismissed this claim with prejudice because it was an impermissible shotgun pleading and, in the alternative, because it failed to state a claim and leave to amend it would be futile,” the appeals court noted in its 17-page order.
Appeals court review
The students asked the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta to review Bloom’s decision.
The court’s unanimous ruling this month began with an acknowledgment of the widespread trauma Cruz inflicted. “The shooting caused traumatic harm to many more bystanders, including the plaintiffs, 15 students who were present and allege psychological injuries,” the appeals court said.
But the three-judge panel made up of Chief Judge William Pryor, Frank M. Hull and Stanley Marcus found no error by Bloom.
“The students appeal this decision, but settled case law makes clear that official acts of negligence or even incompetence in this setting do not violate the right to due process of law. Because we agree with the district court that the students failed to state a claim of a constitutional violation and that leave to amend [their complaint] would be futile, we affirm,” wrote Pryor.
“It is well-established that schoolchildren are not in a custodial relationship with the state,” the ruling says. “Ordinarily there are no custodial relationships in the public-school system, even if officials are aware of potential dangers or have expressed an intent to provide aid on school grounds.”
And “because the students were not in the officials’ custody and failed to allege that the officials committed any ‘arbitrary’ or ‘conscience shocking’ conduct, we agree with the district court that the students failed to state a substantive-due-process claim.”