Education Week - February 28, 2018 - 16
Legal Issues Loom for District in Shooting's Wake
Fallout may dog officials for months or even years
By Mark Walsh
The mass shooting that killed 17 students
and staff members at a Florida high school
thrusts the Broward County school system
into a hornet's nest of legal issues, including
the complexities of a crime scene, the privacy
of student records, and the threat of liability.
And it's fueling what could become a national debate over the proper responses by
schools and mental health professionals for
those deemed at risk of violence.
If the experience of other districts that have
had to deal with school shootings is any guide,
the school district's in-house staff of eight lawyers, along with its outside attorneys, will be
consumed for months, if not years, with issues
arising out of the incident at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
"Today, we had one staff member who did
nothing but work on an emergency contract with a cleanup company to go into the
building" on the Stoneman Douglas campus
where the shootings occurred, said Bar-
bara J. Myrick, the general counsel of the
273,000-student Broward County district.
All manner of legal issues face a school
district after a major school shooter incident,
ranging from short-term concerns such as the
reopening of school and maintaining proper
access to records and school property to longterm matters such as defending against any
lawsuits seeking to hold the district or school
officials partially liable.
"Unfortunately, it seems that with every situation that arises, there is some new element
that perhaps hasn't been considered before,"
said Francisco Negrón, the general counsel of
the National School Boards Association. That
confronts school officials with the need to re-examine their existing plans for dealing with such
events and make changes if necessary, he said.
Records Trickle Out
Myrick spoke to Education Week just two
days after the shooting at Stoneman Douglas.
The biggest initial demand involved requests
for information about the alleged perpetrator,
Nikolas Cruz, she said.
"We have lots of requests for information, but,
of course, any of the student records are protected by FERPA," Myrick said, referring to the
federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy
Act of 1974, which requires law enforcement to
get a court order to gain access to the records.
W. Stuart Stuller, a Boulder, Colo., lawyer
who represented the Jefferson County school
district in that state after the 1999 attacks at
Columbine High School that killed 13 students
and teachers as well as the two student perpetrators, recalled a crush of demands for the
perpetrators' school records in the days after
"The thing to remember is that there are
no exceptions" in FERPA or in Colorado's student-privacy laws, "even for horrific incidents,"
said Stuller, who continues to represent multiple Colorado districts. "When the police
wanted those students' education records, we
said, 'Go get a warrant.' "
Law enforcement authorities will likely follow the steps necessary to get Cruz's records.
But some have already leaked. One was a
2016 Florida social services-agency report of
By Benjamin Herold
16 | EDUCATION WEEK | February 28, 2018 | www.edweek.org
In the days after the shootings, Broward
County Sheriff Scott Israel called on Florida
lawmakers to expand the ability of law enforcement officers to involuntarily commit for
a short-term evaluation anyone, including a
minor, who produces social-media postings exhibiting violent tendencies or an inclination
to commit violence.
The sheriff called on state lawmakers to
Scrutinizing the shooter's
On Social Media,
Even as a heavily armed teenager stalked the
halls of Florida's Marjory Stoneman Douglas
High School, firing on his former classmates,
students turned to Twitter and Snapchat to
communicate with loved ones and document the
Within hours, law-enforcement officials were
combing through the "very, very concerning"
social-media history of 19-year-old Nikolas
Cruz, who would later confess to the mass
And in the week that followed, a cadre of
Stoneman Douglas High students emerged as
vocal advocates of new gun-control measures,
using social-media platforms to challenge
elected officials, organize marches, and raise
money-and, in turn, became the targets of
a vicious backlash led by online trolls and
This is the new reality for schools and
educators, experts say: Social media is essential
to understanding and responding to a tragedy
like a school shooting, precisely because it is
so interwoven with the fabric of young people's
lives and such a critical part of our information
"This is the power of social media," said
Amanda Lenhart, an expert on teengers and
technology who now works as the deputy
director of the Better Life Lab at New America,
a Washington think tank. "It brings us all so
immediately to these experiences, but it can do
so in a remarkably unfiltered way, and it can
have a traumatic impact, even on people who
weren't directly involved."
Following is a look at four big ways social
media has shaped the events surrounding the
second-worst school shooting in U.S. history.
an in-home investigation of Cruz conducted
in response to troubling Snapchat posts by the
student. But the state Department of Children
and Families determined that Cruz was a low
risk of harming himself or others.
Meanwhile, on the weekend after the shootings at Stoneman Douglas High, WPLG-TV in
Miami obtained disciplinary records for Cruz
from his middle school years, which showed a
pattern of fights and unruly behavior. The TV
station shared the reports with the Washington
Post, which published a story about them as well.
There were also the reports that the FBI
had failed to check out more-recent troubling
reports of Cruz's social-media postings.
as they happened
Most young people use social media primarily to
communicate with their friends and families, said
researcher Joan Donovan of Data & Society, a think tank.
As students, including freshman Aidan Minoff, tweeted,
"snapped," and texted depictions of the terror unfolding
around them, Donovan said, most were likely just trying to
let people know they were still alive, to share information,
or to process the chaos as
best they could.
"It's a way to fight
Douglas students, though,
back, not with
intentionally sought to
weapons, but with
document the shooting for
historical, journalistic, or
advocacy purposes, shar-JOAN DONOVAN
ing updates and interviewResearcher, Data & Society
ing their fellow students.
These types of socialmedia uses are double-edged, experts said.
As they're recycled on social media and repackaged by
cable news, such raw and graphic images have the potential to traumatize even students who weren't directly
involved, fueling "contagion," said Rob Coad, a high
school psychologist in Illinois who serves on the school
safety and crisis-response committee of the National Association of School Psychologists.
But Donovan said teengers are also keenly aware
of the impact social media has had on lawmakers and
institutions when it is used as a "tool of witness"-as has
been the case in other recent tragedies, such as police
shootings of unarmed black citizens.
"It's a way to fight back, not with weapons, but with
evidence," Donovan said.
As soon as Nikolas Cruz was identified as the shooter at
Stoneman Douglas High, law enforcement and the news media
began scouring the troubled young man's social-media accounts, which have since been deleted.
Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel quickly told media
outlets that Cruz's posts were "very, very concerning." Fellow
students said Cruz's accounts were full of images of guns and
And then came one media report after another: Cruz had
posted a threat to become a "professional school shooter" on
YouTube, prompting a tip to the FBI that was never followed up,
Buzzfeed reported. A series of Instagram messages described to
Buzzfeed by other students detailed angry threats made by Cruz
after a breakup with a girlfriend. Florida's Sun-Sentinel reported
that the local sheriff and child-welfare agencies had investigated
Cruz after he documented cutting himself on Snapchat. CNN
reported on a private Instagram chat group in which Cruz allegedly spewed racist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic hate.
In response, social-service workers, law enforcement, and
even students and school staff members alike have received
criticism-including from President Donald Trump-for not
recognizing Cruz's warning signs.
"Every single red flag was being thrown up by this kid, four
days after his 18th birthday, and nothing was done to help
him," Gordon Weekes, one of the public defenders involved in
Cruz's case, told the Sun-Sentinel. "The system didn't only fail
him, it failed the entire community."
"Every single red flag was being thrown up by
this kid, four days after his 18th birthday, and
nothing was done to help him."
Chief Assistant, Broward County Public Defender's Office
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Education Week - February 28, 2018
Education Week - February 28, 2018
News in Brief
Computer Science for All: Can Schools Make It Happen?
Pressure to Graduate Failing Students Is Felt Nationwide
U.K. Curriculum Import Becoming Increasingly Popular
Missouri Tackles Challenge of Dyslexia Screening, Services
Lost Sense of School As a Safe Place
Grief and Rage Drive Students To Demand Changes to Gun Laws
A Florida City Forever Changed
Lockdown Drills Prompt Fear, Stress After Parkland
A Long Journey Ahead Seen For Survivors of Shooting
On Social Media, Teens Witness, Grieve, Organize
Legal Issues Loom for District In Shooting’s Wake
One State’s Dive Into K-12 Aid Figures
States Confront ESSA Mandate on Spending Transparency
Several Ed. Dept. Offices Target of Reorganization
Trump Seeks Ed. Dept. Budget Cuts
The Editors: What Should Betsy DeVos Prioritize?
Margaret Spellings: Higher Education
Marilyn Anderson Rhames: Teacher Quality
Karla Phillips: Personalization
Maddie Fennell: Leadership by Example
Shaun M. Dougherty: Career and Tech Ed
Mike Tenbusch : The ‘Have Nots’
Rafiq R. Kalam Id-Din II: Racial-Equity Agenda
Erin McGrath: Lack of Choice
TopSchoolJobs Recruitment Marketplace
Jerrod Wheeler: Impact Aid Is a Lifeline for Military-Connected Kids
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - Education Week - February 28, 2018
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - 2
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - 3
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - Report Roundup
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - 5
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - Computer Science for All: Can Schools Make It Happen?
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - Pressure to Graduate Failing Students Is Felt Nationwide
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - U.K. Curriculum Import Becoming Increasingly Popular
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - Missouri Tackles Challenge of Dyslexia Screening, Services
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - Lost Sense of School As a Safe Place
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - Grief and Rage Drive Students To Demand Changes to Gun Laws
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - A Florida City Forever Changed
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - 13
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - Lockdown Drills Prompt Fear, Stress After Parkland
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - A Long Journey Ahead Seen For Survivors of Shooting
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - Legal Issues Loom for District In Shooting’s Wake
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - 17
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - States Confront ESSA Mandate on Spending Transparency
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - Several Ed. Dept. Offices Target of Reorganization
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - Trump Seeks Ed. Dept. Budget Cuts
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - 21
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - Maddie Fennell: Leadership by Example
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - Erin McGrath: Lack of Choice
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - Letters
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - 25
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - TopSchoolJobs Recruitment Marketplace
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - 27
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - Jerrod Wheeler: Impact Aid Is a Lifeline for Military-Connected Kids
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - CW1
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - CW2
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - CW3
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - CW4