Navigating Schools' Liability Shifts Following the Oxford High School Shooting
National Youth Violence Prevention Week is a Good Time to Consider School Safety Planning
A Michigan school district is being held legally accountable for the tragic shooting that took place at its Oxford High School last year, marking an undeniable shift in liability when it comes to school shootings. From this point on, it’s clear that school districts will be held responsible for acts of violence on campuses, regardless of whether they had the right technology and protocols in place to help staff identify warning signs and take appropriate preventative action.
In this case, Oxford Community Schools is facing three lawsuits in federal and state courts — each seeking $100 million in damages — that allege the district administrators and staff members ignored warning signs and disturbing behavior exhibited by the eventual shooter. Filed on behalf of students who survived the shooting, the lawsuits accuse Oxford Superintendent Tim Throne and others of knowing about threats, failing to prevent the shooting, and putting students in danger.
While protecting students’ safety should always be a school district’s No. 1 priority, it has become impossible to ignore the legal consequences at stake. Now more than ever, it’s in school districts’ best interest to adopt the technology and tools needed to appropriately monitor student behavior and help staff members navigate signs of potential violence. Adopting these proactive tools illustrates effort and good faith by the district, as they use all tools available to guard students’ safety and prevent such incidents.
Taking a Proactive Approach
While there will likely be more formal requirements and even legislation put in place to reform school safety measures down the line, we can expect to see proactive school districts implementing new protocols on their own, right away — particularly as the youth mental health crisis continues and as the lawsuits against Oxford signal new, costly repercussions for school that do not make every attempt to proactively protect student safety.
These districts will begin to shift their priorities, budgeting for student safety and mental health tools. As leading school districts begin to implement change, additional ones will almost certainly follow suit. While this process may take some time — and some schools will be slower to adapt — we can expect to see a domino effect.
When discussing budget reallocation, it’s also important to keep in mind that many schools are understaffed and underfunded, making it more difficult for new measures to be put into effect. While this has long been a problem, government grants and resources will start to become more accessible to schools in need, helping them address mental health concerns and prevent school violence.
Looking At the Bigger Picture
In the case of the Oxford High School shooting, there was a trail of breadcrumbs leading up to the tragedy: The shooter was researching ammo the day before, and a teacher had reported that he had said “something disturbing.” On top of this, he drew images depicting students being shot and killed on a math test, and posted on social media about his new gun. Even after school officials met with the student and his parents to discuss some of this alarming behavior, he was sent back to class.
It’s clear that Oxford High School did not have the proper tools or protocols in place to appropriately track and examine this collective string of incidents. The student researching ammo, combined with his violent illustrations and threatening social media activity, adds up to an obvious warning sign. If these dots had been properly connected by school officials, it could have resulted in a different course of action by the school staff.
There are various tools available that help school district personnel understand context with incidents to see the bigger picture. Advanced online-monitoring technologies identify and flag students who are at-risk, based on what they do or say in their digital lives. In most cases, the technology uses AI to trigger alerts when a student types a word that is considered an indicator of risk. From there, a team of trained moderators assesses whether the student in question is genuinely at risk and, if so, notifies the school in confidence. Good monitoring technology can help schools connect the dots between isolated incidents to appropriately identify and act upon any perceived threats to student wellbeing or imminent violence.
Partnering with Trustworthy Organizations
In addition to adopting effective monitoring technology, there are various organizations that school districts can partner with to develop threat assessment protocols. For example, the “I Love U Guys” Foundation, which was founded by two parents who lost their daughter in a school shooting, develops research-backed educational programs and training for crisis response. Similarly, the Sandy Hook Promise organization aims to protect children from gun violence, encouraging people to take meaningful action in schools, homes, and communities to prevent tragedies. My organization, Linewize, is one of several ed tech companies offering a monitoring technology that is part of a larger student-safety framework designed to transform school communities.
By partnering with trustworthy organizations, school districts can implement effective strategies and best practices, providing counselors, principals, and teachers with the necessary training and preparation to handle tough scenarios.
Some school organizations we’ve worked with have stated that they do not want access to this category of technology due to the liability of its visibility. However, it looks like the precedent might be set that the liability exists regardless if schools are using this category of technology.
In analysis, not having a process or technology in place to try to prevent these types of tragedies might actually introduce liability. It’s clear that we have reached an important tipping point, as school districts and officials are facing legal liability, whether or not they are using student safety monitoring or threat assessment technology.
Together, we must prioritize the safety — and the future — of our students. As more school districts leverage effective technology and methodologies to prevent school violence from occurring in the first place, we can finally look towards a future where school shootings are a thing of the past.
Ross Young is executive vice president at Linewize, where he helps K–12 school districts meet the challenges of today’s connected learning environment by leading product strategy, sales, and customer experience. Young has deep expertise in the ed tech and cybersecurity industries, a passion for technology and its ability to drive social impact, and a strong understanding of how to effectively integrate classroom management tools into school districts while complying with security, safety, 1:1 scale, and procurement.