Nikola Cruz shot and killed 17 people at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14, 2018. Fifteen students who were bystanders suffered traumatic harm and psychological injuries from the shooting. In their lawsuit against Broward County, Robert Runcie, Scot Peterson, the students allege that the Parkland tragedy was exacerbated by government blunders before and after the shooting because Broward County Sheriff’s Office failed to act on the many dozens of calls it received that warned of Cruz’s dangerous propensities. Sheriff Scott Israel and Superintendent Runcie knew that Cruz might be dangerous, and Runcie was warned that the school had inadequate security, but neither official attempted to improve it. After Cruz started shooting, Scot Peterson, the police officer in charge of school security, stood outside the school with three other officers and did not enter or attempt to stop the shooting.
They claimed that the failure of Broward County and the officials to protect the students violated their rights to substantive due process under the Fourteenth Amendment. The district court dismissed the claims, and the students took this appeal.
To meet their substantive due process claim in the federal civil rights action, the students had to show that the officials had a duty to protect the students from harm by third parties. Initially, the court found that the students were not in the official’s custody, such as circumstances involving incarceration or involuntary confinement. School attendance, even when compelled by truancy and compulsory attendance, is not similar to incarceration. For individuals that are not in custody, the plaintiffs had to show that the official’s conduct was arbitrary or “conscience shocking” for the government official’s conduct to rise to the level of a substantive due process violation. The court explained that only the most egregious official conduct qualifies under the standard. Even intentional wrongs seldom violate the due process clause.
The students advanced a theory of liability that the officials acted with deliberate indifference. To succeed with this theory the students would have to show that the officials must know of and disregard an excessive and extremely great risk to the victim’s health and safety. The students argued that the officials’ actions were arbitrary or conscience shocking because they know that Cruz was a danger but failed to intervene during the shooting.
Evaluating the totality of the circumstances, the court found the students cannot show the conduct by the officials was arbitrary and conscience shocking. The court reasoned that the Parkland shooting was an incident that called for fast action where officials must make split second judgments in circumstances that are tense uncertain and rapidly evolving. Here the students fail to allege that any official acted with the purpose of causing harm. The court stated that when a violent and chaotic circumstance happens, officials must make decisions in haste under pressure and frequently without the luxury of a second chance. Absent intentional wrongdoing, the court cannot review those split-second decisions under the due process clause. The court also denied the students’ claim that the shooting was related to a failure to train because it was never properly presented to the district court.