11th Circuit Won’t Reinstate Case Brought by School Shooting Survivors

Students are evacuated out of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14, 2018, after a shooting. (Mike Stocker, South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP)

ATLANTA (CN) — The 11th Circuit on Friday rejected a civil rights lawsuit filed by survivors of the 2018 Parkland school shooting, ruling that school and county officials who failed to help students during the shooting did not have a “custodial duty” to protect them. 

In a unanimous decision, a three-judge panel of the Atlanta-based appeals court rejected an attempt by 15 former and current students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School to revive the suit against Broward County and various officials, including Superintendent of Schools Robert Runcie, former Sheriff Scott Israel, former school-resource officer Scot Peterson, and former school security monitor Andrew Medina. 

The students were present at the shooting and say they suffered psychological injuries. They claim that officials’ “incompetent” failure to protect them was unconstitutional. 

In a 17-page opinion, the 11th Circuit ruled that the students did not show that the officials’ failure to stop accused shooter Nikolas Cruz from entering the school was a violation of their rights under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment. 

“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,” U.S. Circuit Judge William Pryor, a George W. Bush appointee, wrote on behalf of the panel. 

The Valentine’s Day 2018 shooting resulted in the deaths of 17 people and 17 others were injured during the six-minute massacre. Cruz’s trial has been indefinitely delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The students’ complaint alleges that Medina allowed Cruz to enter the school despite recognizing him as a suspicious person and potential shooter. Cruz reportedly began shooting less than a minute after entering the building.

According to the ruling, Peterson and three unnamed people stood outside the school with guns drawn but did not enter or try to stop the shooting. Police captain Jan Jordan repeatedly prevented emergency responders from entering the building to stop Cruz or help the victims. 

Jordan resigned in 2018. Peterson was later fired and charged with child neglect and negligence for failing to confront Cruz.

The panel ruled Friday that the students were not in a “custodial relationship” with the officials, even the school’s armed school-safety officers. 

“The officers’ presence on school grounds, whether by itself or in combination with truancy and compulsory attendance laws, does not restrain students’ freedom to act in a way that is comparable to incarceration or institutional confinement,” Pryor wrote. “Because the students were not in custody at school, they were not in a custodial relationship with the officials.” 

The students failed to show that the officials acted with deliberate indifference and did not demonstrate that the officials’ split-second decisions during the shooting were undertaken with the purpose to cause harm, the ruling states. 

In fact, the judges found that the students’ lawsuit “is replete with allegations that disprove the notion that the officials intended to harm them,” giving the example that Medina alerted others of Cruz’s suspicious presence. 

Pryor was joined on the panel by Senior U.S. Circuit Judges Frank Hull and Stanley Marcus, both Bill Clinton appointees. 

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