EDITORIAL: Allowing Colorado parents to sue schools over safety failures isn’t enough

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State lawmakers in the Colorado Senate got it only half-right this week when they approved a measure that will allow parents of children injured by foreseeable school violence to sue school districts.

What they got wrong, and what the Colorado House can rectify, is to include measures that give guidance and, most important, money to districts to make them safer.

slowThe state Senate gave Senate Bill 213 a bi-partisan send-off to members of the House, prompted by the 2013 tragedy at Arapahoe High School. It was there that student Claire Davis was shot and killed by fellow student Karl Pierson. Pierson was a psychologically troubled student who’d had numerous encounters with school officials in regards to his behavior. Despite that, he appeared at school one day with a rifle, easily got it into the school, and killed Davis when he encountered her.

Despite school districts all over the state imploring state lawmakers not to do it, the state Senate easily agreed to allow parents to sue schools for up to $350,000 for deemed negligence.

It was a wise move. But it was shortsighted. There’s no doubt that the first effect this new law will have will be to hike the liability insurance premiums of just about every school district in the state. It’s unclear where that money will come from, but chances are good it’ll eventually come out of the classroom.
And while the move sends a stern and important message to school administrators and teachers across the state to improve student safety now, it doesn’t provide any expertise, advice or money to do the job. Teachers are just as much at risk of being shot by a wayward student as are students themselves. Everyone in the building is keenly aware of and worried about yet another attack. But most schools, especially urban high schools, have become so large, with upward of 3,600 students, that even the most basic, prudent public safety practices are hugely important and fiscally impossible. What other sensitive public venue in Colorado besides a school can you pass through virtually unseen, carrying weapons and be able to pull out a gun and inflict untold horror?

Senate Bill 213 provides new impetus for school districts to look at school safety, but every school in Colorado needs the money and the expertise to create systems focusing closely on psychologically troubled students. The caseload for school counseling and mental health employees is a joke when you consider how serious ignoring this threat can be. Schools all over the state need resources that they can count on when they refer students who most likely won’t become killers like Pierson, but who need help nonetheless.

On the other side of protecting children, schools must be prepared for students or anyone else not identified as a threat, intent on bringing violence into a school. Aurora police have repeatedly pointed out the shortcomings of public schools when it comes to protecting children from a gunman getting in. Multiple entrances, no real inspection of those entering the building, or the items they carry inside, are chronic shortcomings inside schools. While a great deal of work has been done on improving the response time in a school when problems break out, not nearly enough has been done to prevent them from happening in the first place.

Actually stopping school attacks is going to take concrete steps, and raising the specter of a liability lawsuit is far from any of the steps schools can count on. Members of the state House need to do more than leave this threat hanging over the heads of school administrators, they need to give them the tools and resources to make changes to protect students, and keep another Colorado family from benefiting from being able to sue a school for its tragic school-safety failures.