Academic journal article Journal of Law and Education

Fatal School Shootings, Liability, and Sovereign Immunity: Where Should the Line Be Drawn?

Academic journal article Journal of Law and Education

Fatal School Shootings, Liability, and Sovereign Immunity: Where Should the Line Be Drawn?

Article excerpt

Chalk Talk-*

On December 1, 1997, Michael Carneal shot and killed three classmates, and injured five others, at Heath High School in Paducah, Kentucky.1 Subsequently, Carneal pled guilty but mentally ill to the shootings2 and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for twenty-five years.

Separate from the criminal suit, the parents of the three fatally wounded teens sued, in civil court, over fifty people, including Carneal's parents and twenty educators.3 They sought approximately $10 million in compensatory damages and $120 million in punitive damages.4 In the suit, the parents allege that many people knew of the dangers that Carneal posed and failed to take appropriate action to prevent the fatal shootings: "At least a dozen people knew. They knew Michael Carneal had brought guns to school, that he fantasized about killing classmates, that he was planning `something big.'"5

As outrageous and absurd as it may seem, it is clear, based upon the depositions given by students, that Michael Carneal had brought guns to school on several occasions before that fatal December morning. Alan Coleman, a fellow student, testified that "[a]pproximately one month before the shooting we were gathered in the lobby of the auditorium [at school] ... when [Carneal] ... pulled a gun out of his backpack and showed it to me."6 Matthew R. Neamon, a ninth grader and friend of Carneal since second grade, testified that "[Carneal] brought a gun to school and he showed it to me ... it was a pistol .

.. semiautomatic."7 Amanda M. Jones, a ninth grader and Carneal's girlfriend the fall before the shooting, testified that "around Halloween, he brought a gun to school that he was trying to sell."8

Teachers may also have been aware of trouble with Carneal. In fact, in one paper at school "he described a fantasy of mutilating 'preps' and described a boy opening fire on a group of schoolmates. `There was blood everywhere,' it said."9 However, despite such strong language, nothing was ever said about the paper and no one at school even thought to mention the paper to Carneal's parents.10

Following the filing of the initial suit, the judge dismissed the case against all parties except Carneal.11 Subsequently, the families of three girls killed in the shooting agreed to settle their claims against Carneal for $42 million.12 However, such an enormous settlement is "largely symbolic" as Carneal has no assets13 and will be in prison until at least 2022.

While the attorney for the parents, Michael Breen of Bowling Green, Kentucky, hopes this settlement will have a significant effect and impact on other cases, such a result is doubtful. Breen states that "[t]his settlement sends a very strong message that all parents and school officials must be viligant and ever aware of those children who would commit violence upon their classmates."14 However, under current state law in Kentucky, school officials and administrators are not likely to be held accountable, even for ignoring the most obvious of warning signs. In fact, when Judge Shadoan dismissed the claims against the teachers and the school officials, he stated "[w]e cannot expect those teachers and administrators to be psychiatrists, lawyers, psychologists, or physicians. They are to educate our children. Nothing more and nothing less."15

However, perhaps something more should be required. In many households both parents work. No longer is the mother expected to stay home while the father earns the income. Many parents can simply not afford to stay home. Therefore, the options for home schooling are severely curtailed. In order to give their children a quality education parents must send their children to public or private schools. Shouldn't the children in those schools be safe? Shouldn't the school district and educators provide a safe learning environment for our young people? While the obvious answer is yes, there is often nothing forcing the schools to do so. …

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