Senate passes district liability bill

Updated April 22, 9:30 a.m. – The Senate Wednesday morning voted 25-9 to pass the bill that would make school districts legally liable for certain kinds of violent incidents.

Several amendments were added to soften Senate Bill 15-213 during preliminary debate on Tuesday, but those didn’t go far enough for some Democratic senators, who proposed other amendments to further limit districts’ liability. Those were defeated.

School districts have raised concerns that the bill sets an ambiguous standard for lawsuits and that it might cause schools to overreact and take such steps as expelling students seen as potentially dangerous.

The bill was prompted by the December 2013 death of Arapahoe High School student Claire Davis, who was shot by fellow student Karl Pierson. Her parents, Michael and Desiree Davis, have long complained that the Littleton Public Schools have been uncooperative in providing information about the tragedy and what led up to it. (Earlier this month the Littleton school board agreed to arbitration with the family on the issue of information sharing.)

One floor amendment approved Tuesday formally names the bill the Claire Davis School Safety Act.

Pushing for changes in the bill presents a delicate political challenge for districts. The measure is sponsored by the Senate’s two top Republicans, President Bill Cadman of Colorado Springs and Majority Leader Mark Scheffel of Parker. And their House sponsors are that chamber’s top Democrats, Speaker Dickey Lee Hullinghorst of Boulder and Majority Leader Crisanta Duran of Denver.

The main elements of the bill would allow districts and charter schools to be held liable if they don’t use “reasonable care” in protecting students, faculty or staff from “reasonably foreseeable” acts of violence that lead to serious bodily injury or death.

Damage caps would be set at $350,000 for individuals and $900,000 in cases of multiple victims. A provision to allow another $350,000 for lawyers’ fees was removed in committee earlier. The bill also would make it easier for families to get information from districts.

The Senate approved these amendments that were proposed by Scheffel:

  • Districts could not be found negligent solely on the basis of failing to expel a student.
  • Individual schools employees couldn’t be held liable unless their actions were “willful and wanton.”
  • Districts would have two years to implement new safety policies before they could be held liable for incidents.

The bill uses the legal standard of simple negligence. Democratic amendments to raise that to the harder-to-prove standards of gross negligence or deliberate indifference were defeated.

The Senate’s nearly 90 minutes of debate Tuesday were sober and serious.

“The goal is to affect change, to motivate behavior” in order to make schools safer, Scheffel said.

But Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, said, “Do we solve the problem with legalese? I don’t think so.”

“This is a dramatic shift in state policy,” warned Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver. He said he fears the bill would discourage teachers from trying to help troubled students. “Reaching out one more time should never be considered negligence.”

But Sen. Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, supported the bill. After reciting a long list of school tragedies, she said, “Senate Bill 213 is challenging our school districts to move to a new normal. … We all know that laws can be changed, but dead students, dead teachers cannot be brought back to the classroom. So I choose to take the risk” of passing the bill.

A companion measure, Senate Bill 15-214, would create a legislative study committee on school safety and youth mental health.

School districts, like other government agencies, are immune from a wide variety of lawsuits. But there are specific exceptions in state law, and districts can be sued in contractual disputes, for discrimination and civil rights issues, for unsafe building conditions and for injuries caused by motor vehicle accidents.