The Uvalde, Texas, school shooting has generated intense discussion once again about what legislative bodies, including Congress and state legislatures, might do to mitigate the risk and consequences of such events in the future.
So, I thought I would tell you how the Colorado General Assembly chose to respond to a lesser-known school shooting that occurred Dec. 13, 2013, at Arapahoe High School in Centennial.
There was only one victim, a 17-year-old girl named Claire Davis. The shooter was an 18-year-old classmate. He took his life after shooting Davis. The weapon was a shotgun.
It’s possible the intended victim was a school staff member and that Davis was a random victim. By coincidence or intent, the shooting occurred on the one-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn. Claire Davis died eight days after the shooting.
The General Assembly responded to this event in 2015 with the passage of the Claire Davis School Safety Act. In the legislative declaration accompanying this new law, the General Assembly presciently said “times have changed in this country” and “it is now foreseeable that violence in schools could occur.”
The law causes school districts and charter schools to no longer have the protection of sovereign immunity for crimes of violence (defined as murder, first-degree assault or a felony sexual assault) occurring on school grounds or during a school sponsored event — meaning school districts and charter schools can be sued for damages.
Recovery under the act requires proof of negligence — that is, a failure to exercise “reasonable care” to prevent a “reasonably foreseeable” injury.
Damages are capped, with a cost-of-living adjustment every four years. The current limits, as of Jan. 1, are $424,000 per victim and $1.195 million in total for multiple victims. The next adjustment will occur Jan. 1, 2026.
School districts and charter schools take this law seriously and seek to establish policies that will pass the test of “reasonable care.”
But the law doesn’t tell them what those policies need to be, and there are many variations on the theme.
The School Safety Resource Center, a state agency within the Department of Public Safety, offers guidance and training.
Returning to sovereign immunity, this is a legal doctrine with roots going back hundreds of years to England, where the basic premise was: you can’t sue the king. Thus, if you were a mere serf or commoner, too bad for you if one of the royal dogs — known to be vicious but allowed to run loose — took a chunk out of your leg.
Realizing that sovereign immunity was unfair to everyone but the sovereign, the doctrine has softened a good bit over the centuries, and there are now many exceptions allowing governmental entities and their employees to be liable for negligent actions. The Claire Davis School Safety Act added to the list of situations where sovereign immunity does not apply.
There is no way to know if this act has reduced the risk of school shootings. It has, however, helped to further encourage school districts and charter schools to take seriously the safety of students and staff, and to provide compensation to victims not previously available.
Jim Flynn is with the Colorado Springs firm of Flynn & Wright LLC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.