High court turns down appeal involving violence in Texas school

March 21, 1995|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court refused again yesterday, as it has done repeatedly for the past seven years, to get involved in a wide-ranging constitutional controversy over assaults and random violence in the nation's public schools.

Students or their parents now sue school officials regularly over the rising number of attacks in schoolhouses or on playgrounds, and those lawsuits have produced differing and sometimes contradictory results in lower courts.

The justices, however, have chosen in seven cases in a row to stay out of the deepening debate over constitutional rights and duties when violence or sexual assaults occur at school. Usually, parents and students claim a constitutional right to safe schools, on the theory that the students attend under compulsory attendance laws, so officials have a duty to prevent dangerous conditions from developing.

Yesterday, the justices turned down an appeal asking them to create new constitutional protection for students when an individual brings a gun to school, a shooting breaks out, and a student is killed by a stray bullet.

That plea was made by Andrew Johnson, the father of a Dallas high school student shot dead with a bullet from a non-student's gun during a scuffle inside the school. The father's appeal noted that, on the day of the shooting, the high school's metal detectors were in storage, and that the students were not wearing identification badges, as usually is required.

A non-student entered the school, carrying a concealed pistol. When other students tried to force him out, the youth drew the gun and fired. Andrew Gaston, Mr. Johnson's son, was struck by a bullet and died. The father sued the school district and the school principal.

The case was thrown out in a federal appeals court in November. While the judges said they deplored the "epidemic of violence in American public schools," and the threat that poses for "innocent, law-abiding students," there is no basis in the Constitution for establishing a right to a safe school.

School officials violate their obligations to the students, the appeals court said, only if they actually create a perilous situation, add to the risk of harm that otherwise might exist at school, or put students in a position where they are more vulnerable to injury or death. The appeals court found none of those conditions at the Dallas high school.

The Supreme Court gave no reason for refusing to hear the father's appeal. That is its custom when denying review of appeals. It has not explained any of its repeated refusals since 1989 to review school assault cases. Many of those other cases involved sexual assaults by teachers, school staff members or fellow students.

The court denied yesterday to review other cases. Among them was an appeal by the city of Richmond, Calif., challenging a lower court ruling allowing police to be sued under the Constitution's ban on "unreasonable seizures" when they killed a citizen's dog believed to be threatening them. The dog was on the owner's property when police shot it.

The lower court said such a shooting destroys property and can be an unconstitutional interference with the family's enjoyment of the dog as property.

The justices took no action yesterday on a major case from Idaho testing the constitutionality of student-led prayers at public school graduation ceremonies. The case thus has been postponed for at least a week.

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