Colleges Have a Duty to Protect Students From Violence, California High Court Rules

It's unfortunate, but it seems that our new reality is that school violence can happen at any school and at any time. But, there may be certain actions we can all take to reduce, and maybe even eliminate, such tragedies from occurring. In fact, the California Supreme Court has ruled that colleges have a duty to protect their students from foreseeable violence in the classroom.

A Foreseeable Attack?

With its ruling, the California Supreme Court reversed the decision of an appeals court, which had decided that UCLA didn't have a duty to protect a student, Katherine Rosen, who was attacked with a knife by her classmate, Damon Thompson. The knife attack occurred in a chemistry lab in October 2009. Prior to the attack, Thompson had been treated by UCLA for various symptoms that indicate schizophrenia.

A psychologist at UCLA had diagnosed Thomson with possible schizophrenia in the spring of 2009, but had concluded that he didn't show signs of homicidal or suicidal ideation. Thompson ceased treatment after a few months, and his sudden attack on Rosen occurred in the following school year.

Rosen filed a lawsuit against the Regents of the University of California and several UCLA employees for negligence. She claimed that they owed her a duty to protect her from Thompson's violent acts, which she alleged were foreseeable. The university filed a motion to dismiss, which was denied. But, in 2015, the California Court of Appeals' Second District reversed the lower court's denial.

Duty to Provide Some Safety

In its decision, the California Supreme Court state that it's reasonable for students, who must attend classes and labs to obtain a degree, to expect that their schools will provide some safety in the classroom. This is especially true when the school is aware of the risk. The court stated:

"When circumstances put a school on notice that a student is at risk to commit violence against other students, the school's failure to take appropriate steps to warn or protect foreseeable victims can be causally connected to injuries the victims suffer as a result of that violence."

The court was careful to emphasize, however, that this duty of care doesn't always equal liability, stating that "[c]olleges are not the ultimate insurers of all student safety." Instead, the court held that when there's a foreseeable threat of violence, colleges have a duty to act with reasonable care, which will vary depending on the circumstances of a particular case. The case has been remanded back to the appeals court to determine if UCLA had breached its duty of care.

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