Last month, the California Supreme Court elevated campus safety to an ivory tower discussion of a university’s legal duty to protect its students — by issuing a warning or otherwise taking steps to protect them — from identifiable risks of violence. The Court found that colleges and universities may be held liable for negligence if they don’t take reasonable steps to protect students against criminal attacks “while they are engaged in activities that are part of the school’s curriculum or closely related to its delivery of educational services.”

This decision comes at a time when survivors of the February 14, 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida have sparked a movement across the country to demand the right to a violence-free education. Rampage shootings on college campuses are relatively rare compared to high school shootings, but rarity does not minimize the problem.

In April 2007, one of the most deadly school shootings in the United States occurred at Virginia Tech, killing 32 people. This tragedy was also followed by a debate about whether gun control or arming faculty and students would curb the violence; now, eleven years later, our future leaders and the California Supreme Court have jumped into the fray. It’s unclear where the Second Amendment debate will lead us, but the California Supreme Court has decided that higher education’s free pass on liability for foreseeable violence against their students is no longer defensible.

Facts of the Case

In October 2009, Katherine Rosen was a pre-med student at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) when she was violently attacked during a chemistry lab by another student, Damon Thompson. Thompson attacked Rosen from behind, stabbing her in the chest and neck with a kitchen knife, causing life-threatening injuries that Rosen survived.

Special Relationship

To hold universities legally responsible for protecting students from dangerous persons on campus, there must a “special relationship” between the school and its students. In a previous case, the California Supreme Court found a special relationship between a high school student and the school district because of “the mandatory character of school attendance and the comprehensive control over students exercised by school personnel, ‘analogous in many ways to the relationship between parents and their children.’” [C.A. v. William S. Hart Union High School Dist. (2012) 53 Cal.4th 861, 869]

In the Rosen case, the Court didn’t have to take a huge leap to find that in the closed environment of a college campus, students “are dependent on their college communities to provide structure, guidance, and a safe learning environment,” and that colleges “have superior control over the environment and the ability to protect students.” Therefore, the Court concluded that colleges and universities have a duty to act reasonably to warn or protect their students from foreseeable violence.

Whether Thompson posed a foreseeable risk of violence is a case-specific question that will be answered when the case is sent back to the lower court and a trier of fact looks at the events leading up to the violent attack on Katherine Rosen.

The Duty to Protect Students From Foreseeable Violence

The UCLA case was decided under California law, but Peter Lake, director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson University, predicted that it will have far-reaching effects. “This is a step that no one has been willing to take before,” Lake said. “There are groundbreaking implications — new duties to follow with curricular activity and in particular in the classroom — and what are the boundaries of the newly created special relationship?”

Under general principles of tort law (i.e., negligence), a person has a duty to act with reasonable care under the circumstances. The Court pointed out that fulfilling this legal duty may be fulfilled with adequate warnings, depending on the circumstances. For example, in another groundbreaking case California’s high court held that in certain circumstances a university psychotherapist owes a duty to warn a potential victim when a patient presents a serious danger of violence to that person — even if the person is not a student and not on campus. [Tarasoff v. Bd. of Regents of the Univ. of Cal. (1976) 17 Cal.3d 425]

While the warning signs are not always clear, Professor Katherine S. Newman, a sociologist who studied seven rampage shootings in higher education that occurred between 1991-2008, concluded in 2012 that we need to pay attention to troubling rumors or threats:

Rampage shootings are never spontaneous. They are planned, often for months in advance.

….

Law enforcement will never be able to respond fast enough to stop shootings that often end in seconds. This is why we have to find ways for people who hear troubling rumors or threats to report them to people who can investigate and intervene.

Professor Newman found that the shooter’s peers are usually the ones who hear something. This is the theory behind bystander intervention in sexual assault prevention and the Sandy Hook Promise: educating the community on how to recognize the warning signs and intervene to stop the violence.

Foreseeability

Given the national attention on the Virginia Tech shootings since 2007, the California Supreme Court found that “[e]ven a comparatively rare classroom attack is a foreseeable occurrence that colleges have been equipping themselves to address for at least the past decade.”

After the Virginia Tech shootings, a University of California task force recommended improvements in student mental health services and emergency preparedness, including:

  • Training staff, faculty, and students on the recognition of warning signs of potential violent behavior and what actions to take when these warning signs are noted
  • Training all members of the campus community on what actions to take if a violent critical incident occurs
  • Training the campus community on securing the campus and evacuation procedures

A task force of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators published a “Blueprint for Safer Campuses” that also recommended prevention and education programs to address campus safety risks.

To be clear, this decision does not apply to off-campus or social activities that are not related to higher education. But as Peter Lake points out, “school-sponsored activities” could include athletics, off-campus educational activities, and even studying abroad. Either way, Lake says schools should be focusing on preventing violence rather than avoiding getting sued.

[The Regents of the Univ. of California v. Superior Court (CA SCt 2018) No. S230568]