The California Supreme Court agreed Thursday to review an appellate court decision that public colleges and universities have no responsibility to protect students from violence committed by other students on campus.
In a unanimous decision, the court granted a petition to review a 2-1 ruling by the 2nd District Court of Appeals last year that dismissed a lawsuit filed against the University of California regents by former UCLA student Katherine Rosen, who in 2010 was stabbed and had her throat slashed by a mentally ill classmate in her chemistry lab.
The lawsuit alleged that in the months before the attack, UCLA officials and professors had received reports of disturbing behavior by Rosen’s assailant, Damon Thompson.
Thompson had been diagnosed as having paranoid delusions, was possibly suffering from schizophrenia and had been expelled from student housing after a physical altercation with another resident, according to court documents.
UCLA failed to respond to the warnings and did not alert students to his potentially violent behavior, the lawsuit alleged.
In 2010, a judge found Thompson, who admitted to the stabbing, not guilty by reason of insanity.
A different judge previously denied a request by the UC regents to dismiss the lawsuit. That decision was appealed, resulting in the appellate court ruling.
Attorney Brian Panish, who represented Rosen, accused the university of presenting itself as a safe campus but abandoning any responsibility once a tragic incident occurs.
Students have a fundamental right to protection from foreseeable violence while attending college, he said.
“We will continue to fight for justice for Ms. Rosen and for all other students in order to ensure that universities are held accountable if adequate safety policies and procedures are not adopted and followed,” Panish said.
In the appellate court majority opinion, Justice Laurie Zelon wrote that the violent crime committed by a person suffering from mental illness is a “societal problem not limited to the college setting.”
While colleges may adopt policies and provide services to reduce the likelihood of such violence, they are not liable for criminal action by mentally ill people, regardless of whether it was foreseeable, she wrote.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Dennis M. Perluss wrote that UCLA promotes itself to prospective students and their families as a campus where student safety is of the highest priority. The institution has a duty to protect students from foreseeable harm, he wrote.
“I would find such a special relationship exists between a college and its enrolled students, at least when the student is in a classroom under the direct supervision of an instructor, and the school has a duty to take reasonable steps to keep its classrooms safe from foreseeable threats of violence,” Perluss wrote.
In a statement, UCLA said it is sympathetic to the trauma Rosen endured. The university also welcomes the Supreme Court review and believes that the court’s ruling will be affirmed, the statement said.
“Student safety continues to be a top priority for UCLA, and we continually strive to provide a welcoming environment for all students that encourages learning and offers resources to support our students in need,” the statement said.
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