This story was updated at 1:18 p.m. to clarify that the Office of the County Attorney represents the county in the civil suit, and to further clarify that no criminal trial occurred because the defendant pleaded guilty.
The family of the student shot in January at Col. Zadok Magruder High School has filed a lawsuit against Montgomery County and its Board of Education. The lawsuit alleges negligence and faults the removal of resource officers as a factor in the January school shooting, which left DeAndre Thomas severely injured.
The lawsuit was filed in Montgomery County Circuit Court, less than two weeks after Steven Alston, Jr. pleaded guilty to attempted first-degree murder in the shooting. Alexander Bush of Rowe, Weinstein & Sohn PLLC is representing the family in the lawsuit.
Bush said there are key differences in the legal arguments against the county and school board. In suing the school board, he said the family is alleging a straightforward case of negligence, that “there were warning signs they should have seen and didn’t act on.”
He called the case against the county “a lot more complicated” because it involves a nuanced history of what the lawsuit describes as “a significant increase” in gun violence across the county. The lawsuit assigns liability to the county government for failing to appropriately counteract the rise in violence.
Specifically, the Thomas family’s complaint makes allegations aimed at the county’s removal of school resource officers from school, as well as its failure to hire school counselors despite public promises to do so.
Because of these policies, the lawsuit argues, Thomas was “deprived of his right to be free from physical assaults and attacks, and other physical, psychological and emotional harm” and was “deprived of his right to a free and appropriate public education” as guaranteed to him in the Maryland Constitution.
Bush said the advantage of filing in county court instead of federal is that local judges might be more sensitive to issues affecting their own school system.
The shooting occurred during a fight in a Magruder school bathroom on Jan. 21, 2022. Alston, who was 17 at the time, shot 15-year-old Thomas with a self-assembled “ghost gun” and was not apprehended by police until two hours after the incident, according to multiple reports. Thomas suffered life-threatening injuries and has since undergone multiple surgeries to survive the attack.
Having been served by certified mail with the civil complaint on Dec. 5, the county and its school board are both expected to respond by filing motions to dismiss within the 30-day deadline, Bush said. An attorney for the plaintiffs has already asked for a 40-day filing extension, he said.
In civil cases, a motion to dismiss is an opportunity to ask the judge to throw out a case by arguing that the allegations in the plaintiff’s complaint don’t justify a lawsuit. Bush said the school board will have a “much bigger challenge” trying to win a motion to dismiss because the Thomas family’s complaint pleaded “specific facts of dangers” that the school board should have known prior to the incident.
In response to Bethesda Beat’s request for comment, communications director Jessica Baxter said in an email on behalf of Montgomery County Public Schools: “We are limited in what we can say due to pending litigation. However, we respect the family’s right to pursue their legal options.”
The Office of the County Attorney, representing the county in the suit, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Sentencing in the criminal case against Alston is set for 9:30 a.m. Thursday. Because the State’s Attorney’s Office represents the government in criminal trials, Bush said even if Alston hadn’t pleaded guilty, the Thomas family would have had no opportunity to provide input on testimony or arguments made during his trial. The family plans to give victim impact statements at the sentencing hearing, Bush said.
“I honestly think [the family is] looking forward to getting closure,” Bush said of the hearing. “We have no voice except what we get to say on Thursday.”