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Michigan teens sue Oxford School District for failing to stop fatal shooting

NOEL KING, HOST:

The parents of two teenage girls who survived a school shooting in Oxford, Mich., are suing the school district and some individual staff members, alleging that they failed to stop the shooting. Seventeen-year-old Riley Franz was shot in the neck. Her 14-year-old sister, Bella, was nearby but was not hurt. According to the court filing, both girls are experiencing PTSD. Their attorney, Geoffrey Fieger, is with us now. Good morning, sir.

GEOFFREY FIEGER: Good morning.

KING: How are your clients? How are the Franz sisters doing?

FIEGER: Traumatized, as any child would be coming from a war zone, being shot in the neck, having your best friend killed in front of you, and in Bella's case, 14 years old, narrowly surviving. How does she compute that or process that as a child who's just going to school in Michigan?

KING: We should say that this is an unusual move. You are suing the school district and teachers. Why them, and why not the parents of the alleged shooter or the shooter himself?

FIEGER: Well, he's going to spend the rest of his life in prison. You can't get water out of a rock, and they are not going to answer any of the real questions. It's time for action. Since Columbine, there's been hundreds of school shootings. We talk and we don't do. We're trying to do something and get answers. Here in this case, it's clear that the school administrators, teachers, counselors failed to call in police liaison. They were aware of his violent tendencies. They were aware that he was searching the internet for ammunition. They were aware that he had written things that a reasonable person would consider to be a plan of attack.

They even called the parents and asked them to take him to counseling and remove them to the school. The parents, who are also in jail, refused to do so. And the teachers and counselors allowed him to leave whatever room he was in with them. He walked into a bathroom, he loaded 30 rounds of ammunition into his large pistol that his parents had gotten him as a present for his 15th birthday, and he began a slaughter in Oxford High School. Something needs to be done. Something needs to be done. Answers need to be given.

KING: Let me ask you a tough question. We're going to have listeners who say this goes too far. Teenagers do act erratically. That's not uncommon. It rarely ends in tragedy, and when it does, it is a tragedy and no one would deny that. But by doing this, you're setting a precedent that will put educators on edge in a way that they simply do not deserve. How do you respond to that?

FIEGER: Well, they should be put on edge. We refuse as a society to address the 9,000-pound gorilla in the room, which is guns and the Second Amendment. We don't talk about what every civilized country in the world would talk about is, how did a 15-year-old get access to guns and ammunition? But then, we better talk about all the other things and we better make it painful because this is not an unusual event. Since Columbine - which I also handled, two of the victims in Columbine - there have been over 300 shootings. There have been over 200,000 victimized children who were present at the time. I don't believe this is an isolated event. What I think is unusual is that nobody's really demanded answers. We've all held hands and we've all done hand-wringing, but we've never really addressed what's going on.

KING: You've said you want to make it painful. What do you mean by that?

FIEGER: Well, I think that if we don't make it painful, no changes will come. Painful in this way is only a civil liability, but there is concern - that is the defendants with civil liability with the idea that they might have to pay money. And that's the only thing I can do as a civil prosecutor - to make them pay money. They're as concerned about that as somebody who might be afraid of going to prison or paying a penalty. And that is the way to effectuate change. It's, in effect and in reality, the only way in our civil and criminal justice systems we can effect change. Because after 20 years, it's quite clear that the hand-wringing and the talking has done nothing.

KING: How much money? What kind of monetary damages are you asking for?

FIEGER: I'm not sure because I'm not unaware. I'm not naive to believe this is a very difficult, difficult case. It's not about the money. I have to stress that. It's about the principle, and it's about seeking justice. It's simply the only mechanism we can get it. If we reduce it to money, then people get cynical and they say, ah ha, there's that trial lawyer, there's that ambulance chaser going out and trying to get money. It's not about that. If it was about that, I wouldn't handle the case. It's about getting answers after all these years of school shootings - unanswered and unexplained and unresolved.

KING: As you note, it will be a difficult case, in large part because Michigan has pretty strong immunity lawsuits - pretty strong immunity, I should say, against lawsuits such as this. Do you really think this is going to get before a jury?

FIEGER: No. I want it to be. Hope springs eternal in my heart. But I have to tell you, you're absolutely right. Elected officials go out, they give lip service to the victims, and then they go behind the scenes and make it impossible for the victims to get justice. Michigan has an extraordinarily difficult row to hoe in terms of trying to overcome immunity. So it's problematic. That's the best answer I can give you.

KING: OK. Geoffrey Fieger, thank you for taking the time this morning.

FIEGER: Thank you. It's wonderful talking to you, too.

KING: And I should note that NPR did reach out to the Oxford School District for comment, and the district did not respond. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.