For decades the legal responsibilities and relationship of schools to faculty, staff, and students have gone through periods of change.
Before the 1960s, most courts in this country believed that universities and colleges acted in place of parents, loco parentis. In the 1960s and 1970s the courts decided that college students were no longer children, but constitutional adults. As a result, loco parentis was no longer the foundation upon which the relationship between institutions of higher learning and students rested. In the 1980s, the courts began to reject student injury claims. The legal system began to view universities and colleges as “bystanders” basing their logic on students’ Constitutional rights and freedoms.
Courts in this period argued that institutions of higher learning had no duty for student safety; students had a duty to protect themselves. “Duty” became the underlying principle in law related to the student-university relationship. The net result was that legal precedents became confusing and contradictory.
From the late 1980s on, however, universities began moving away from the “bystander” concept. More and more the courts ruled that universities and colleges do have a duty regarding the safety of students. Robert D. Bickel and Peter F. Lake argue in their book, “The Rights and Responsibilities of the Modern University,” that the term facilitator is “the appropriate legal and cultural balance between university authority/control and student freedom.”
The jury decision in March 2012, against Virginia Tech, was a critical step forward in defining this facilitator role and confirming that failure to warn students of an imminent threat is gross negligence and a violation of the duties owed by universities and colleges to students, staff and faculty.
The Pryde and Peterson families wanted what all of us who have lost family members to needless gun violence want: they wanted justice, they wanted answers, and they wanted to expose the negligence and incompetence for which they had paid such a high price. They also wanted to make sure that lessons were learned from Virginia Tech, and that actions would be taken to prevent other parents from suffering as they had suffered.
When you read the transcript of the trial, you fully understand why it took a jury of seven men and women in Montgomery County Virginia less than four hours to find Virginia Tech guilty of contributing to the deaths of Erin Peterson and Julia Pryde: and by implication, guilty of contributing to the deaths of thirty other students and faculty members as well as being complicit in the wounding of at least seventeen others.
Of course, for every step forward, there is pushback, especially from those who have political and financial concerns in the outcome of the lawsuit. (To be continued)