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NATIONAL VIEW:How Florida can honor the Stoneman Douglas families - Odessa American: Guest Columns

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NATIONAL VIEW:How Florida can honor the Stoneman Douglas families

THE POINT: The Legislature could respect the Stoneman Douglas families by revising the state's outdated sovereign immunity law.

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Posted: Wednesday, February 24, 2021 2:30 am

The rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is too big and too tragic for current law.

Circuit Court Judge Patti Englander Henning ruled recently that the Broward County School District had no duty to warn students and faculty that Nikolas Cruz could present a threat. It was the latest frustration for survivors and victims' families who have sought to hold someone accountable.

Their frustration is understandable. The Florida Supreme Court previously ruled that, under state liability statutes, the deaths of 17 people and the wounding of 17 others qualifies only as a single incident. The school district thus could have to pay no more than $300,000 — split among all the families.

Sadly, bureaucratic ineptitude is not actionable. When it came to Cruz, the school district committed plenty of it.

District officials lost track of Cruz after he was assigned to a program for troubled students. After the shooting, the district tried to cover up its mistakes. Yet Englander's ruling seems correct.

As the judge wrote in her ruling, "Plaintiffs wish to place on trial the district's programs arguing that but for the ineffective special programs instituted for Cruz and other students with like tendencies, he would not have bought a gun nor have attended Marjory Stoneman Douglas nor used the weapon at Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

"Knowing how poorly he was progressing with modified school programs, the district should have predicted his future criminality – specifically that he would one day enter the school (where he had not been in attendance for over a year) and commit the unimaginable violence that he did."

Englander called the allegations "an impermissible stacking of inferences." ... For every scenario of failure by the school district that the families raise, however, there's another scenario.

Example: Why did Florida fail to ban the sale of military-style weapons — meant to inflict mass casualties as quickly as possible — before Cruz bought one? Why did the Legislature ban sales of such weapons to those under 21 only after the Stoneman Douglas shooting?

Example: Why didn't the FBI follow up more aggressively on two tips that Cruz might shoot up a school? A month after the shooting, the bureau issued a statement that read, in part, "As the FBI Director has made clear, the FBI could have and should have done more to investigate the information it was provided prior to the shooting. While we will never know if any such investigative activity would have prevented this tragedy, we clearly should have done more."

Example: Why didn't the Florida Department of Children and Families investigate Cruz more thoroughly? In 2016, DCF responded because Cruz was displaying erratic behavior, according to his mother. DCF closed the case after determining that he posed no danger to himself and was adequately cared for.

Another "if only" concerns Scott Peterson, the school resource officer. The disgraced former Broward sheriff's deputy did not enter the building even after shots were fired.

That "if only" prompted the Broward County State Attorney's Office to file 11 criminal charges against Peterson. Most accuse of him child neglect. The indictment, however, seems like overreach.

Prosecutors did not argue that even prompt action by Peterson could have saved the victims killed on the first floor of the 1200 Building. The allegation is that Peterson could have saved the six who died on the third floor.

As his attorneys responded, however, Peterson would have had just 73 seconds to reach the third floor and prevent the killings. Before getting there, he would have had to secure classrooms, bathrooms and teachers lounges on the first and second floors. Two years ago, a man in Dayton, Ohio, armed with a similar weapon, killed nine people in 26 seconds.

The families still can go after the school district in court. They could seek claims bills for higher payments through the Legislature, though that process can take years and usually requires claimants to hire lobbyists ...

But the Legislature could respect the Stoneman Douglas families — and change Florida for the better — by revising the state's outdated sovereign immunity law. Doing so would require the Legislature to focus less on issues like allowing guns in churches and removing the license requirement for carrying concealed weapons.

Could Florida shift away from those priorities? If only.

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