Parental liability in school shooting plots

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Connor Pruett and Philip Byrd being escorted by a Lee County Sheriff’s deputy. (Credit: LCSO)

Two boys who planned a shooting at Harns Marsh Middle School are currently at the Southwest Regional Juvenile Detention Center in Fort Myers. There were plenty of warning signs in this case—deputies were called to the home of 13-year-old Connor Pruett 60 times, nearly 20 times to the home of 14-year-old Phillip Byrd—which has many of you asking: Should parents be held accountable if their children plan something like a school shooting?

In this case, experts say you can’t legally argue these kids were independent from their households. They both lived at home and had stashes of guns and knives at their houses, despite it being illegal to buy a firearm in Florida unless you’re 18. Are the parents or guardians responsible at all for this situation?

“The answer is yes,” said Charles Gallagher, of Charles Gallagher & Associates. “Now, you wouldn’t have a court passing on the same criminal liability for, say, some… weapons issue or battery or whatever, for the parent. You’d have the parent have obligation or responsibility for none of the civil end of that, whatever damages might occur; restitution, possibly in terms of the criminal matter, but it’s not going to be the same kind of fault or liability they would face as the kids.”

Gallagher also says it’s important to monitor your kids’ social media if you feel like something suspicious is going on, because in this case, the boys posted pictures of some of their weapons on social media for people to see. There’s a charge in Florida called “contributing to the delinquency of a minor,” which allows parents to be found guilty of not doing enough active parenting to make sure something like this doesn’t happen. It’s a lack of awareness of a plan like this that can really land a parent in legal trouble.

“Normally, on the other end of these things, parents would be the ones arguing ‘No, they’re emancipated children, they’re outside the fit, they’re outside the home, I can’t be liable for that,’ because they’re, 20-year-old kids doing their own thing,” Gallagher said. “Here, it’s going to be a challenge, I think, because they’re the age they are, requiring parenting, requiring oversight; an 18-year-old requires a whole lot less oversight and rearing than a 13- to 14-year-old. And that’s a distinction that needs to be very tough.”

Gallagher also says that if one of the kids got a loaded gun from the home that wasn’t appropriately stored, Florida has statutes that impose criminal liability on that for the adults, a second-degree felony.

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