School Safety Litigation: A New Lens

This is the initial case file for a single-victim school shooting case.  This litigation was settled soon after a school safety expert witness for the defense was suddenly withdrawn from the case.  He was withdrawn soon after plaintiff’s counsel raised significant questions about his credibility.  This case illustrates how complex school safety litigation can be.
This is the initial case file for a single-victim school shooting case. This litigation was settled soon after a school safety expert witness for the defense was suddenly withdrawn from the case. He was withdrawn soon after plaintiff’s counsel raised significant questions about his credibility. This case illustrates how complex school safety litigation can be.

 

School Safety Litigation Provides a Unique View

I have reviewed several thousand pages of depositions and other documents relating to school safety lawsuits during the past month. Though I decline the majority of requests to serve as an expert witness, I do accept a few cases each year. The cases I accept are typically large and complex requiring considerable attention to detail. For example, one federal civil action against an independent school resulted in a four week jury trial. The case involved allegations of severe bullying and sexual assault.   The case file came up to my sternum when resting on the floor. I was deposed for eight hours by an attorney assisted by four other lawyers. The school’s headmaster was deposed five times and plaintiff’s counsel spent an estimated $3.1 million litigating the school. After deliberating for about 90 minutes, the jury found in favor of the school on all seven allegations.

Reviewing school safety incidents for these types of cases is extremely demanding. Competent expert witnesses carefully review their case files. Though arduous, the process is incredibly revealing. Many of these cases involve terrible tragedies that can provide valuable lessons. One of the main reasons I accept cases as an expert witness is to learn how to better help our clients reduce the chances they will experience safety incidents. These experiences also help us aid our clients in reducing their liability exposure.   Reviewing the questions asked by attorneys and the answers provided by the people they depose is extremely informative. Looking at a case through the lens of both defense and plaintiff’s counsel also affords a unique perspective. Seeing a case from these divergent angles is different from what we see when we conduct school security assessments or from the viewpoint I had investigating incidents and testifying in court as police officer.

These experiences help us to help our clients see a different take on both the how and the why of their efforts to make schools safer. Learning from school safety litigation can not only prevent future litigation, but can make our schools safer.

School Violence in 1960 -Principal Opens Fire at Elementary School Killing Two Teachers

Indiana Principal Headline

Deadly school shooting by elementary school principal

On February, 1 1960, 44-year-old principal Leonard Redden opened fire with a shotgun at William Reed Elementary School in Hartford Indiana killed two school teachers.  According to the February 2, 1960 Lawrence Journal, Redden entered the classroom of 52-year-old teacher Harriet Robinson and shot her in the chest as about 30 students watched in shock. Redden then apparently shot and killed 62-year-old Minnie McFarren while her students were present. Dave Woodward, Director of the Indiana School Safety Specialist’s Academy, was kind enough to forward a copy of the newspaper article about this shooting after a School Safety Specialist sent it to him. Dave noted that the article regarding this tragic act of school violence was only a short single column of a few hundred words length. He also pointed out that an article on whether the groundhog had seen his shadow on the same page was twice as long.

Has school violence really increased or are we simply more aware of the danger?

This is an excellent example of how the twenty four hour news cycle has changed our perceptions of school violence. If the same type of incident occurred today, the event would garner intensive media coverage. Each year, I find out about incidents of school violence like this one that I have never before heard of. The myth that major acts of school violence are a new phenomenon is a pervasive one. It is understandable that the intensive media coverage of tragic school events can and often do cause people to have this perspective. At the same time, inaccurate perceptions relating to the risk of school violence do cause significant harm. Unrealistic fears can prevent people from shopping at a local mall, flying on an airplane to visit loved ones and in some cases, not to participate in our schools. For example, I have spoken to parents who have decided to home school their children as well as adults who decided not to teach because of active shooter fears. While these may not be typical reactions, they epitomize the many ways that unrealistic levels of fear of school violence have a negative impact on our educational system.

School violence – replacing fear with knowledge

Though the industry of fear is pervasive in America, we urge educators, public safety officials, elected officials, students and parents to gain a more accurate understanding of the real risks and proven solutions for school violence. Stephen Satterly’s excellent paper Relative Risks of Death in K12 Schools , published in April, helps to bring improved clarity to the issue of school violence. It is important that we continue to replace fear with reason when it comes to school violence.

School Security Assessment Projects

School Security Assessment Projects Nearing Completion

School security assessment projects have been keeping our analysts incredibly busy for the past two years.   Our dedicated team of 52 analysts managed to help conduct school safety, security, climate, culture and emergency preparedness assessments for more than 1,000 private, charter, faith-based and independent schools and one statewide school security assessment project in only twenty four months. As we wrap up assessment projects for clients as diverse as the Washington D.C. Public School System, Ketchikan, Alaska Public Schools, Richmond, Virginia Public School System, Bend-LaPine, Oregon Public Schools, Leander, Texas Independent School District and a number of the nation’s finest independent schools. Our analysts finally have the opportunity to begin several large projects that had to be placed on the back burner. Though we are finalists for projects involving nearly two hundred schools, the number of requests for school security assessment projects is finally settling down.

During the past two years, the 52 subject matter experts from Safe Havens International have conducted school security assessments for more than 1,000 K12 schools.  During this time, SHI analysts also assisted with a state-wide school security assessment for the Maine Department of Education, published a new book Staying Alive – How to Act Fast and Survive Deadly Encounters, produced more than two dozen new school safety training videos and have helped author a number of web courses including the IS360 Active Shooter course for the 2013 White House School Safety Initiative.

During the past two years, the 52 subject matter experts from Safe Havens International have conducted school security assessments for more than 1,000 K12 schools. During this time, SHI analysts also assisted with a statewide school security assessment for the Maine Department of Education, published a new book Staying Alive – How to Act Fast and Survive Deadly Encounters, produced more than two dozen new school safety training videos, and have helped author a number of web courses including the IS360 Active Shooter course for the 2013 White House School Safety Initiative.

Requests for Other School Safety Services Increasing

We are still continuing to see a steady increase in the number of requests for conference keynotes, other types of consulting projects, training programs and requests relating to expert witness services. Our analysts will soon be able to resume work on a number of school safety training videos and web courses as well as to increase the number of free school safety resources for our website. Thanks to the efforts of Morgan Billinger, we are also finally able to release a monthly newsletter in addition to our periodic release of The Safety Net.

Safe Havens has Grown and Improved

The massive surge in requests for school security assessments forced us to further expand not only the number of analysts, but to develop a highly robust web-based school safety assessment tool. We were blessed to have the generous assistance of Human Technologies in this effort. The assessment tool we developed with their assistance makes it much easier for us to develop and tabulate the data our comprehensive school safety assessment process generates.

I am humbled by the number of requests for services that we have received and indebted to our amazing team of subject matter experts. I am amazed that we have grown into what is now the world’s largest school safety center. The contributions our analysts have made to the field of school safety during the past two years are beyond anything I could have envisioned. I am eager to see the contributions our much expanded school safety team will produce in the next two years.