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I have a cousin who is a teacher and a few years ago we had a long discussion about school shootings and part of this discussion was about what teachers can and cannot do during a school shooting that is in progress.

One thing she told me is that teachers are not allowed to engage/attack a shooter when the shooter's back is turned to them. She said that a teacher has to first do something to get the shooter's attention and then after the shooter has turned around to face the teacher, then the teacher is allowed to engage/attack the shooter.

When I asked her why they are required to do this, she said that if they were to attack the shooter from behind, such as hitting them over the head with a heavy blunt object and shooter dies from this head injury, or if the teacher were to have a gun and shoots the shooter in the back and the shooter dies from being shot, then the teacher will be charged with murder and is likely to go to prison. I found this very hard to believe and I am thinking that perhaps she was given disinformation about the rules of engagement during a school shooting event.

Is it true that a teacher can't engage/attack a shooter from behind during a school shooting that is in progress?

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    There are two kinds of "can't". One is about criminal law – self defense is not a crime, it is a defense against what would otherwise be a crime. The other is policy prohibition: "the local district has a policy requiring that...". The legal rationale behind such a policy would be negligible, but might have been motivated out of an over-abundance of legal caution (school district fear of liability). Even as a policy-can't it seems quite unlikely, abundance of caution is a powerful tool.
    – user6726
    May 26 at 17:04
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    Even if it's against the law or policy, both of which I doubt, who is going to actually enforce it? Can you imagine that press conference; "Mrs. Smith clobbered a mass shooter over the head with a chair, she is being charged with assault because she did it from behind."
    – Ryan_L
    May 26 at 20:39
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    @user6726 Please turn this answer into an answer so I can upvote it. May 27 at 1:29
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    Who ever told you that has a fundamental misunderstanding of almost everything involved. May 27 at 15:25
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    "and is likely to go to prison" Likely? No jury would ever convict that.
    – DKNguyen
    May 27 at 18:23

4 Answers 4

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Is it true that a teacher can't engage/attack a shooter from behind during a school shooting that is in progress?

No. Any use of force of any kind that only harms or kills the shooter who is actively engaged in a school shooting (and indeed, even if it caused bodily injury that isn't grave or deadly to someone else who is innocent) is always justified.

You can't shoot someone who is not an ongoing threat to others if they flee, in order to arrest or punish them (e.g. an unarmed shoplifter), but under the leading constitutional case, Tennessee v. Garner, this limitation doesn't apply to murderers and mass shooters anyway, at least if they continue to pose a future threat.

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No, this is not true

In self-defense, anyone is entitled to use any reasonable force to defend themselves (or other people) from anyone who they reasonably consider a threat. They only need to show that they could reasonably consider the person a threat, and that the force they used was reasonable given the threat they believed existed. There is not even a requirement for the threat to be genuine (for instance shooting someone who appeared to be about to shoot them, when the gun later turns out to be a replica), only that they reasonably believed the threat was genuine.

Some jurisdictions may have a duty to retreat before defending yourself. Even in those areas though, you would need both somewhere to retreat to and the ability to retreat there, before you had a duty to retreat instead of engaging the individual. Clearly this doesn't apply for anyone within range of a weapon.

What counts as "reasonable force" will depend on the situation. The use of force continuum provides guidelines which are appropriate for many situations. Ultimately though, what is "reasonable" comes down to a decision by prosecutors, and then by a jury if a decision is made to prosecute. Note that prosecution does not necessarily mean the prosecutor believes you are guilty; it merely means the decision on "reasonableness" is non-obvious and needs the additional rigour which can only be met by putting evidence in front of a jury.

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    Would the duty to retreat even apply if you're trying to protect someone else who is incapable of self-defense, such as a teacher trying to protect their students? Unless all of them can retreat together, I imagine the teacher's actions would usually be justified.
    – Barmar
    May 27 at 14:21
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    @Barmar Clearly not, since self-defense also applies to defending others who are threatened. And "duty to retreat" only applies anyway if retreat is possible, which clearly it isn't with a firearm and non-bulletproof walls.
    – Graham
    May 27 at 18:33
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    I'm imagining a lawyer arguing that the gunman was facing person A, so person B in another direction could have run the other way and out the door. It's hard to imagine a prosecutor making such a case, but maybe a lawyer in in a wrongful death suit.
    – Barmar
    May 27 at 18:56
  • @Barmar Quoting from the comment you replied to: "self-defense also applies to defending others who are threatened". Imagining a lawyer who would make the argument says very little about the law... May 28 at 1:46
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    @LorenPechtel At one time, under the English Common Law, someone only had the right to defend close relatives. That has not been true for many years. In every state today, you could use deadly force, if necessary, to defend a total stranger.
    – Davislor
    May 28 at 21:23
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You Do not Say Where this Was, but ....

Your tag says it is a question about the law in the United States. Your friend told you that this was not some recommendation of the best way to handle a school shooter, or some local school-district policy that she might be disciplined under. In your telling, she believed that she would be criminally prosecuted for murder. You also tell us that this conversation took place a few years ago, so she could not have been referring to some obsolete criminal statute that was repealed decades ago.

There has to have been some misunderstanding along the line, because this claim as stated is definitely false.

No, it is not True

No jurisdiction in the United States has, or to my knowledge has ever had, such a law.

More specifically, all states currently recognize defense of others as a legal defense for homicide. No state has a rule that a homicide can only be justifiable if the other person is facing you, which would be absurd.

More than forty states base this part of the criminal code on the Model Penal Code, written by the American Law Institute. §3.05 of its 1962 revision (at the Internet Archive) establishes a justification for “Use of Force for the Protection of Other Persons” as a legal defense. In a state that enacted a provision based on this, a teacher (or anyone else) would be justified in killing someone, if necessary to save the children under their care (or defend anyone else). They would not have a “duty to retreat” unless all the people whom they reasonably believed themselves to be protecting were also able to retreat in complete safety, nor would teachers have a duty to retreat from their workplace.

The same Model Penal Code also has other provisions that might be relevant, such as the “Choice of Evils” defense (where breaking a law becomes justifiable to prevent a greater harm) or “Use of Force by Persons with Special Repsonsibility for the Care, Discipline or Safety of Others,” including “a teacher or another person entrusted with the care or supervision for a special purpose of a minor.”

It is, again, worth noting that the Model Penal Code is a text that has had a great deal of influence on state laws, but is not actually the law anywhere, and every state’s laws are slightly different. Some states consider homicide justifiable to prevent “death or bodily injury” to another, other states “serious bodily injury,” others “deadly force,” others listing specific crimes which killing someone is justified to prevent, and so on. For another example, Oregon, the state I’m most familiar with, has some additional defenses. It deems deadly force justified in defense of premises, under some circumstances, “to prevent the commission of arson or a felony by force and violence by the trespasser” Texas, where the latest school shooting took place, instead presumes that someone who uses deadly force against someone who unlawfully enters their workplace by force has a reasonable belief that the trespasser is is up to no good.

Where Could this Urban Legend Have Come From?

The justifiable-homicide laws of the different states were gradually reformed over the course of the twentieth century. Previously, the English Common Law had held that you could not kill another person to defend anyone but a close relative of yours. (William Blackstone speculated that this defense arose out of the rule that a man could protect his property, since his wife and children were once considered his property.) Another limitation that formerly held (as recently as 1994 in the state of Ohio, or 2021 in Wyoming) was that you had no defense if you attacked someone in the reasonable belief that you were defending an innocent person, but you were mistaken.

It sounds as if your friend was unaware of the “protection of others” defense, and had been told that a teacher could only claim self-defense against a school shooter. This might have arisen from a case where a jury did not believe a defendant had acted in self-defense, because they had shot or stabbed someone whose back was turned, and someone who heard about it jumped to the incorrect conclusion that this were always a crime. Or perhaps it’s a confusion of some advice not to shoot first and ask questions later.

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    As for the origin--again and again I have seen people asserting that shooting someone from behind is automatically murder. They generally also show other ignorance about matters of self defense. May 28 at 3:59
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    @LorenPechtel I guess a lot of people who purchase guns for self-defense need to be warned, you can’t get away with shooting someone who’s running away from you, and telling the jury that they wronged you and deserved to die will only make things worse. These warnings often avoid any attempt to explain the moral basis for why that is. This appears to leave many people with the impression that there’s some kind of legal technicality about shooting someone in the back. Or maybe they get it from old movies?
    – Davislor
    May 28 at 16:24
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Let me put a contrarian view.

I admit that this is entirely speculation.

Attacking from behind isn't illegal of itself, but it might contribute to an attack being viewed as illegal.

It's easy to believe that teachers are taught not to attack like that (as a non-American I still find it hard to believe that teachers are actually being given training in defending their schools from active shooters - no other advanced country would do it, or consider it necessary). Attacking from behind might be contributory towards situations that might get the teacher prosecuted. For example Texas law says you can use force "when and to the degree the actor reasonably believes the deadly force is immediately necessary". Your belief may not be "reasonable" if you don't take steps to ensure that the person you are attacking really is a threat. As the case of Ahmaud Arbery shows, it does not matter whether you "believed" you were under threat if your belief was not "reasonable" and especially if you do not take necessary steps to determine the facts of the situation.

  • They might not be the person you think. You might think they are an attacker, but they might actually be an off-duty cop who happened to be passing and is engaging the shooter, or even another teacher using their personal weapon to engage the shooter.
  • The might be doing something that clearly identifies them as harmless. Like holding a police badge out in front of them
  • They might not be doing what you think. You have to remember that carrying a loaded semi-automatic rifle through an elementary school isn't illegal in the US. (Again, only "civilized" country where this is true). If they haven't actually shot someone or made an explicit threat then an attack might not be justified.
  • They might not have a weapon. From behind it's going to be much harder to see if they actually have a weapon.

You have to be aware that if you use deadly force on a person in any of the above circumstances you are guilty of manslaughter (in the most lenient interpretation). Doing either of those could get you decades in jail, and it's unsurprising that teachers are taught not to do it.

Teachers do not have the training of cops to be able to tell who is likely to be a shooter and who might be law enforcement. And teachers do not have the reasonable defence that they were "doing their job to the best of their ability" if they accidentally kill an innocent person. Also a teacher is likely to be exceptionally stressed and probably panicing. part of their training is going to be trying to prevent situations where an innocent person is killed and where the teacher might end up being tried for murder.

Attacking from behind isn't of itself a problem. If the teacher clearly saw the person shoot a child, then no jury is going to convict them if they then hit him from behind. But in other circumstances it's much less clear cut.

If I was training teachers like this I might also tell them not to attack from the back.

Response to comment: I absolutely agree that if there is "reasonable belief" that force is necessary then the attacker will not be found guilt. Everything I say above is about under what conditions that belief might not be "reasonable".

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    This answer is incorrect. Among other errors, while the laws of each state of the U.S. are slightly different, someone who has a reasonable belief that deadly force is necessary to save someone else can use that as an affirmative defense, even if they are mistaken. This formerly was not the case (under what was known as the “alter ego” rule), but at minimum, that belief would be out of date in America.
    – Davislor
    May 27 at 19:46
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    – feetwet
    May 28 at 15:30

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