Schools can’t be held accountable for violent incidents between students that occur off campus, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled Friday.
The justices rejected claims by Diannah Dinsmoor that the Deer Valley Unified School District was liable for the 2014 shooting death of her daughter, Ana, who was killed by a fellow student identified only as Matthew.
Dinsmoor does not dispute that the shooting — Matthew also killed himself — occurred off campus. But she said that school officials were aware that the pair had been dating, that Ana had planned to meet Matthew that day and that Matthew had been violent with another ex-girlfriend.
And Justice Ann Scott Timmer, writing for the unanimous court, acknowledged that there is a “special relationship” between a school and its students that can make them responsible.
“But once students leave the school’s control. the special relationship ends, and students are simultaneously released to their parents’ or guardians’ full custodial care,” she wrote. “At that point, the school is relieved of any duty to affirmatively protect students from any hazards they encounter.”
Timmer acknowledged there can be exceptions.
For example, she said, a school can be sued if a child is injured because of the decision to place a bus stop on a heavily traveled street, subjecting the student to an unreasonable risk of harm. Similarly, Timmer said if there is an active shooter in the neighborhood, a school can be liable for allowing students to leave the building.
But none of that, she said, applies here.
According to court records, the somewhat complicated situation involves, Matthew, Ana and Raven, with the boy apparently playing the girls off against each other.
At one point, Ana said that Matthew had threatened Raven, something she brought to the attention of Kimberly Heinz, the vice principal at the school and, eventually, to the off-duty police officer who worked at the school. The school saw no threat to Ana but did put a safety plan in place for Raven.
Heinz and the police officer were aware that Ana was going to meet with Matthew after school. And while the officer counseled against it, they took no action.
Ana went to her friend’s house to meet Matthew where he shot and killed her and then himself.
While a trial judge threw out the resultant lawsuit, the Court of Appeals said that “special relationship” between the school and the student opened the door for liability.
That led to Friday’s Supreme Court ruling.
“People do not generally have a duty to protect others from harm,” Timmer wrote. “Nevertheless, the school-student relationship imposes an affirmative duty on schools to protect students from unreasonable harm.”
But that, she said, has limits. And Timmer said those are pretty much defined by geography.
The justice said that there are things which make that special relationship exist on school grounds. That creates a situation where the school “supervises and controls students and their environment, enabling it to identify and eliminate risks.”
Timmer said all that pretty much disappears once the student goes off campus.
“The key consideration is whether a known and tangible risk of harm arose that endangered the student while under the school’s custody and control,” she wrote. “In such scenarios, students are deprived of the protection of their parent, and the school has an affirmative duty to protect them from such risks until they are safely released from the school’s custody and control.”