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California

Public colleges not liable for violence on campus, appeals court rules

stabbing

Damon Thompson, accused of stabbing and slashing the throat of a fellow UCLA student on campus, appears at his arraignment hearing in 2009. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

(Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times)

A California appeals court has ruled that public colleges and universities have no responsibility to protect students from violence committed by other students on campus.

The 2-1 ruling by the 2nd District Court of Appeals dismisses 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 alleges that for months before the attack, UCLA officials and professors had received reports of disturbing and threatening behavior by Rosen’s assailant, fellow student Damon Thompson.

Thompson had been diagnosed at a UCLA medical center as having paranoid delusions and suffering from possible schizophrenia and was expelled from his university housing after a physical altercation with another resident, according to court documents.

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UCLA failed to heed the warnings about Thompson 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.

In Rosen’s lawsuit, a different judge previously denied a request by the UC regents to dismiss the lawsuit. That decision was appealed, resulting in the ruling issued this week.

Attorney Brian Panish, who represented Rosen, accused the university of publicly touting itself as a safe campus but abdicating any duty to its students once a tragic incident occurs.

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“When parents send their kids to this school, which boasts about being a top academic institution in the world, they expect their kids to get some protection,” Panish said. “They did nothing.”

In a statement, UCLA said it is sympathetic to the trauma Rosen endured but believes that the court’s ruling is appropriate.

“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.

In the majority opinion, Justice Laurie Zelon wrote that the violent crime at issue in the case, one committed by a person suffering from mental illness, is a “societal problem not limited to the college setting.”

“While colleges and universities may properly adopt policies and provide student services that reduce the likelihood such incidents will occur on their campuses, they are not liable for the criminal wrongdoing of mentally-ill third parties, regardless of whether such conduct might be in some sense 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 paramount. The relationship between the college and its students, he said, calls for the institution to have a duty to protect students from foreseeable harm.

“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,” he wrote.

Panish said he intends to appeal the decision to the California Supreme Court.

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“Who is going to protect students if the school doesn’t?” he said.

For more court news, follow @sjceasar


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