Five teenagers who were accused of plotting an attack at their high school in the southeast Kansas town of Altamont are suing the school board, city and county officials, and law enforcement officials. The teens were accused by a classmate in 1999. They were charged with conspiracy to commit first-degree murder and spent two months in custody before the classmate recanted.
Daniel Smith, Jestin McReynolds, Josh Traxson, Aaron Spencer, and Bryan Vail, also known as Bryan M. McElroy, were joined by family members in filing suit in U.S. District Court in Topeka. The suit includes law enforcement officials, the Labette County Commission, the Altamont City Council, and the school board.
Attorneys are seeking more than $10 million for each young man on several counts, including being searched without probable cause, being arrested without probable cause, and defamation. The attorneys have asked that the trial be moved to Kansas City, Kan.
The charges against the young men were dropped a year ago, but the five were barred from school for the rest of the academic year.
The classmate was charged with falsely reporting a crime, a misdemeanor, but the case was dismissed.
The young men said they joked about mounting rocket launchers on a car and driving it through the school halls. They said the conversation was started by the classmate who turned them in. They also said they didn’t take the conversation seriously.
The case highlights how difficult it can be for school districts to interpret threats in the post-Columbine era.
“There is always the risk that school officials can significantly overreact and subject themselves to liability,” said Craig Wood, a partner at the McGuire Woods law firm in Charlottesville, Va., and a noted expert in education law.
But “I think the likelihood of this case being successful against school officials is minimal,” Wood added. He said the legal standard is different for law enforcement officials–who must have probable cause to make an arrest–and school officials, who only have to have “reasonable suspicion” to act on a possible threat.
“I do think school officials need to be careful to get all the facts before they take action, [conduct] a thorough investigation, and … not overreact simply because of Columbine and some other isolated events,” Wood said. “On the other hand, the failure to take appropriate preventative action that would prevent a violent episode [also] will expose the school official to risk, and I’d rather be sued for doing too much than be sued for doing too little … if the bottom line is trying to protect students.”