Almost one year after the 2018 Marshall County High School shooting, parents of the victims have filed suit. The suit names several school administrators, board members, and the district’s superintendent both individually and in their respective official capacities within the Marshall County School District. The shooter and his family are also named defendants to the lawsuit.
With respect to the school district, the suit alleges that the district, its administrators, teachers, and various counselors (collectively referred to as the “School Defendants”) are liable under theories of negligence and strict liability. Plaintiffs first assert that the School Defendants “negligently supervised and negligently trained employees of Marshall County High School in executing an appropriate Emergency Action Plan, in identifying warning signs, and in implementing policies, procedures and protocols.” (Complaint, ¶ 29) Essentially, Plaintiffs argue that the School Defendants owed them a duty to maintain a safe education environment, and the school breached that duty by failing to implement an adequate action plan for an active shooter situation. Thus, according to Plaintiffs, the School Defendants are at least partially responsible for the victims’ respective injuries.
Furthermore, the suit claims that this alleged failure to implement an adequate action plan was a direct violation K.R.S. § 158.162. (Complaint ¶ 34-35) Generally speaking, this statute mandates that all public schools adopt an an “emergency management response plan.” While this statute primarily refers to severe weather emergency plans, there are provisions which state that public schools must adopt a response plan for “lockdown” scenarios and adhere to practices to control the access to each school building.
In the context of school shootings, courts have generally recognized the discretionary nature of the actions of teachers and administrators in handling troubled students and emergency responses. Historically, claims against school districts and officials relating to school shooting haven been unsuccessful because the requisite standard of proof is high. For instance, tort claims asserted against school officials in Kentucky would need to demonstrate that the defendants actively engaged in bad faith in the implementation– or lack thereof– of a legal duty, such as the implementation of emergency management response plan. See James v. Wilson, 95 S.W.3d 875, 909 (Ky. Ct. App. 2002). Bad faith is not easily demonstrated because it is often difficult to demonstrate that school officials, in fact, had foreknowledge of potential violence from students and failed to act.
With that said, the conversation on school safety is an evolving one in Kentucky and nationwide. For example, just today the Kentucky legislature considered and passed through committee Senate Bill 1 as an attempt to improve school safety in the Commonwealth. As a result, it remains to be seen whether and how the conversation around school safety may affect lawsuits like the one against Marshall County in the future.