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Lawsuits against police over Texas school shooting would be challenging, legal experts say

May 30, 2022 Updated Mon., May 30, 2022 at 8:12 p.m.

By Ginnie Teo New York Daily News

The feeling of helplessness that parents of Robb Elementary School students had as they waited outside the Texas school as last week’s massacre unfolded may hit them again as they start to weigh their legal options.

Legal analysts told the Daily News that there are significant obstacles if parents want to bring a lawsuit against police over their delay in stopping the gunman, and they would stand a better chance suing the school district instead.

A lawsuit would be challenging, Los Angeles-based civil rights attorney James DeSimone said.

“Unless police officers engaged in conduct that created the danger, they are usually immune for failing to intervene,” added DeSimone, who has brought lawsuits against police departments.

Eighteen-year-old Salvador Ramos shot and killed 19 students and two teachers Tuesday before a Border Patrol agent killed him. Police waited in a hallway for 45 minutes before storming the school, according to reports. The on-scene commander had reportedly slowed the police response in the belief that children trapped were safe, a decision Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steven McCraw has said was “wrong.”

At least 19 responding officers waited 45 minutes outside the classroom as they sought a janitor’s master key to unlock the door. In the meantime, students trapped inside the school repeatedly called 911 for help.

“Any attempts by the victim families to sue the police will likely be defeated by sovereign immunity, which gives broad protection to government entities in Texas for the way they handle emergencies like a school shooting,” attorney Ryan Sellers, founding partner at Dallas-based Hales & Sellers, told The News.

Forget about families getting financial compensation, said Sellers’ law partner Jack Hales.

“Most likely, the families will be left without financial compensation as neither federal nor Texas law contemplates compensation against the police for these types of cases,” he said.

And even if a civil lawsuit were allowed to proceed, Hales added, there would be tough obstacles for parents, “like having to prove that their child was shot squarely due to police inactivity.”

While analysts agreed it was wrong for police not to storm the classroom to stop the gunman, parents are unlikely to be able to sue over that decision, they said, due to “government immunity.”

“As sad as that is, it’s probably right for police to have that protection. … We don’t want them to be second-guessing themselves moment by moment and worrying about getting sued every time they make the wrong choice,” Los Angeles-based trial attorney Christa Ramey told The News.

“The choices made by police in Uvalde were legitimate, in-the-line-of-fire decision-making. If this would have been an active shooter that evolved into a hostage situation, the last thing you want is for police to barge in,” said Ramey, who has brought lawsuits against California school districts on behalf of students who were bullied.

But DeSimone sees some hope, especially after reports that officers focused instead on angry parents trying to get into the school. U.S. marshals reportedly even put one distraught mother in handcuffs.

“What gives a lawsuit from the parents some sliver of hope is that police actively prevented parents from saving their own children,” DeSimone said. “A plaintiff’s attorney would probably have to prove that preventing the parents from entering resulted in harm to a child. Who’s to say a child’s life could not have been saved by giving them more prompt medical attention?”

What may work, the experts said, is suing the school district.

Local officials said Friday that the shooter entered the school via a door that had been propped open by a teacher.

“Schools only have two jobs: to teach children and to keep them safe. Outsiders shouldn’t just be able to enter that easily,” Ramey said.

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