The family of slain Ridgewood High student Teddy Niziol filed suit Wednesday in federal court against the Pasco County School Board and the Sheriff's Office, alleging that the teen's death was the result of a colossal breakdown by school and law enforcement officials.
Niziol, 16, was killed Jan. 19, 2000, as he drove out of the parking lot of Ridgewood High in New Port Richey. He was shot by his best friend, Steven Moschella, who was sitting in the back seat of Niziol's Toyota 4-Runner and holding a loaded .22-caliber handgun when the weapon discharged.
The suit, among other things, alleges that school officials violated the federal "Gun-Free Schools Act," a law enacted in 1994 when school shootings were still a new phenomenon. The act requires states and local school districts to have laws and policies ensuring that officials will rigorously investigate and punish students who bring weapons to school. Noncompliance with the act disqualifies states and school districts from receiving federal education dollars. Attorneys for the Niziol family said this was the first lawsuit in the nation filed under the act.
Also, the lawsuit alleges that the Sheriff's Office violated Niziol's civil rights by failing to protect him.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Tampa, alleges that Ridgewood administrators and a sheriff's deputy were shown a note hours before the shooting alerting them that Niziol had a gun on campus. Had the officials reacted with a sense of urgency, the lawsuit claims, Niziol still would be alive.
"That's why we feel this case is so egregious," said attorney J. Meredith Wester of Lutz, whose firm is representing the Niziols. "The school had knowledge of this at 9 a.m. and they didn't do anything."
School officials and the Sheriff's Office have previously said that there was no way they could have prevented the shooting because the note did not contain last names or give any warning that there was a weapon on campus. It only said that a student named Teddy wanted to sell a gun to someone identified only as Joey.
The Niziol family lawsuit, however, alleges that Ridgewood principal Art O'Donnell and the school resource officer, Cpl. Joe Little of the Sheriff's Office, were both told by students in the morning that the Teddy in the note was Niziol. O'Donnell and Little, according to the lawsuit, also were told early in the day that the gun was in Niziol's car in the parking lot. The shooting happened minutes after school let out in the afternoon.
O'Donnell and Little, who has been reassigned to a detective position, are both named individually as defendants in the lawsuit.
The gun had been stolen during a rash of burglaries in St. Pete Beach. Authorities suspected that Niziol was involved in the burglaries; a credit card stolen in the crimes was found in the clothes he died in.
Wester said there has been no direct evidence that Niziol stole the gun. And the fact that he brought the gun to school does not make him responsible for his own death, she said.
"He was a 16-year-old, and he made a stupid mistake," Wester said.
The School Board's attorneys said they had not seen the lawsuit and declined to comment. O'Donnell also declined to comment.
Sheriff's Office spokesman Jon Powers said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.
The lawsuit seeks an unspecified amount in damages, as well as a judicial order forcing the School Board and O'Donnell to strengthen antigun policies so that future school shootings might be prevented. Wester said Niziol's parents, Ted and Annette, are not after money.
"What's important to the Niziols is that there be a change so that this doesn't happen to another family," Wester said.
Niziol's parents notified the School Board and the Sheriff's Office weeks after the shooting of their intention to file suit. Neither governmental body was interested in settling the case before it reached the courts.
If the family had sued in state court, damages for each each governmental agency would be capped at $100,000 by Florida law _ unless the Legislature stepped in and passed a special appropriations bill for a bigger award.
In federal court, however, there is no cap on damages.
Moschella is not named in the suit. The Niziols reached an out-of-court settlement for $300,000 with Moschella's insurance carrier, Wester said.
Moschella, now 18, pleaded guilty to manslaughter by culpable negligence last October and was sentenced to 60 days in jail followed by six years of court-ordered supervision.
_ Cary Davis covers courts in west Pasco County. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6236, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6236. His e-mail address is cbdavissptimes.com.