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California Colleges Must Protect Students From Foreseeable Violence

A recent ruling of the California supreme court is likely sparking even more controversy among California's universities' administrators over what should be done to protect students from violence.

The court ruled that when a university is aware of a threat or foreseeable violence towards a student, it has a duty to protect and warn, and can be held liable for injuries that result. In the case at bar, the state high court remanded the matter to the appellate court to allow the case to move forward to trial if it finds triable issues of material fact.

Dangerous Minds

The case, Rosen v. UCLA, was prompted by a violent attack in a UCLA classroom in 2009. During class, Katherine Rosen was attacked by another student wielding a kitchen knife. She was stabbed and had her neck slashed. Luckily she survived the near fatal attack and was able to resume classes after a prolonged recovery. However, her attacker was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

Notably, the UCLA administration was on notice of the attacker's violent propensities and had particularized information that the attacker, who suffered from mental illness, unjustifiably. But the university also, without any evidence, believed Rosen was maligning him by calling him stupid. Additionally, he had previously made a statement that if the university didn't do anything, he would do something with "undesirable consequences."

Liability Isn't Automatic

Before university administrators and in house counsel begin panicking, it's worth reading the decision to understand the particulars. While the court's ruling could indeed result in a university being held liable for an attack on students, the court was careful not to make liability automatic:

The duty we recognize here is owed not to the public at large but is limited to enrolled students who are at foreseeable risk of being harmed in a violent attack while participating in curricular activities at the school. Moreover, universities are not charged with a broad duty to prevent violence against their students. Such a duty could be impossible to discharge in many circumstances. Rather, the school's duty is to take reasonable steps to protect students when it becomes aware of a foreseeable threat to their safety. The reasonableness of a school's actions in response to a potential threat is a question of breach.

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