The image of Taft Union High School District was more important than the safety of students before, during and after a school shooting in 2013, attorney Daniel Rodriguez said to a panel of jurors Thursday morning.
Rodriguez, representing Bowe Cleveland, the student who was shot during the school shooting and suffered serious injuries in 2013, began his opening statements by alleging that the Taft Union High School District hid threats posed by gunman Bryan Oliver from parents, teachers, staff and law enforcement in an attempt to protect the district's image.
On Jan. 10, 2013, Cleveland, 16 at the time of the shooting, was sitting in his science class when Oliver walked into the classroom and opened fire, striking Cleveland in the chest. Since then, Cleveland has undergone at least 22 surgeries. Lead pellets remain in his body and continue to cause problems, including infections.
The civil lawsuit brought by Cleveland's family against the school district alleges that the administrators, particularly Rona Angelo, former assistant principal at Taft Union High School, was fully aware of the dangers the gunman presented to students and staff and did nothing about it. Rodriguez said the gunman, "leaked his intentions" about the shooting and his violent tendencies.
Students and teachers reported actions and threats the gunman made to Angelo. One student who reported four different times said Angelo told her that the gunman was just "blowing smoke" and he wasn't going to do anything to harm anyone at the school because administration had taken care of it, Rodriguez said. He added that the student felt "dismissed" and "brushed off" by Angelo and didn't report further signs of threatening behavior to administration because of that.
But plaintiff's evidence is expected to show that Angelo did nothing to prevent the gunman's action and was even reductive toward complaints and worries expressed to her by students and teachers, Rodriguez said.
"The school district is refusing to accept any responsibility," Rodriguez said. He added that the district didn't even follow its own protocol when it comes to threats posed by students, including informing school resource officers, the parents of those directly threatened by the gunman, like Cleveland, and the parents of the gunman of the threats being made at school.
Defense attorney Leonard Herr, on the other hand, said district administrators did the best they could while also providing "a quality education in a safe environment." The district, he said, had to struggle to balance discipline and education.
Herr went on to project some of the blame onto the gunman's mother, saying that she knew about his behaviors and interests, including serial killers and violence, and she knew that there was a shotgun unlocked in a bedroom. She knew his history of anger. None of that, Herr said, was reported to the school or to law enforcement.
Despite what Rodriguez previously argued, the school district prioritized safety, Herr said. In 2012, the district even contracted with the city of Taft to increase police services at the school.
Above all else, school district administrators acted in a manner that was appropriate for their roles.
"The school did not act as law enforcement, did not act as parents, and certainly did not act as pals for the students," Herr said.
'Safe and secure'
Threat assessment meetings were supposed to be held if any threat was made by a student at Taft Union High School, Rodriguez said. Included in these meetings were administrators, such as Angelo, and school resource officers.
"Their job is to assess the threat and investigate the student who made the threat" to make a plan to deal with it, Rodriguez said. After the threat assessment is initially made, their job is not done — administrators are supposed to continually modify that plan as threats persist or desist.
That never happened, Rodriguez claimed. Those meetings never happened when it came to the threats made by the gunman, and counseling for the gunman, which was part of the plan supposedly made, never happened, either.
"It takes administrators who care," Rodriguez said.
Herr, however, claimed these threat assessment meetings did occur.
The topic of school cameras and school resource officers not monitoring them was also discussed. Herr said the district decided the best use of the cameras was to use the footage after something happened, such as a fight, so that students could see police presence throughout the school. Rodriguez said the lack of camera monitoring was dangerous.
The gate the gunman walked through to enter the school was left unlocked, even though it was supposed to be locked at all times and monitored to ensure the high school campus was safe and secure, Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez is seeking damages to cover Cleveland’s medical fees, which have climbed into the hundreds of thousands of dollars since the shooting occurred in 2013.
Testimony and evidence began Thursday afternoon. The civil trial is expected to last until July.