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Family sues school district for potato-gun injuries

Original post made on Feb 14, 2018

The parents of a Palo Alto Unified School District student who faces long-term eye damage from an injury sustained during a potato-gun experiment at JLS Middle School have filed a lawsuit seeking damages from the district and two employees.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Wednesday, February 14, 2018, 1:46 PM

Comments (37)

Posted by frankie
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 14, 2018 at 5:59 pm

That's right, we need to crack down on these volunteers promoting hands-on projects for kids. They're running amok, I tell you!

And anyway, what good can come of showing 8th graders that they can try things not straight out of a box or a book? ... or play with any system that's potentially dangerous if you don't respect it.

No, Palo Alto kids lack the experience to do anything but hurt themselves ... ... ... if only there were some way to remedy that. Suggestions welcome!

Posted by frankie
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 14, 2018 at 6:31 pm

... sarcasm aside ...

(1) Classroom volunteers are supposed to have ed degrees? What world does this attorney live in? We need MORE folks active in schools, not afraid they'll be sued if some bizarre accident happens.

(2) If the family lacked good health insurance, pursuing medical expenses would seem reasonable. Looking for $4 mil, and suing teachers and volunteers personally, looks downright mercenary.

(3) The kid was 13. I wish there were a better way for him/her to learn the "don't step in front of a pressurized projectile you just attempted to fire" lesson, but c'mon. We should be thankful we don't live somewhere where folks own firearms.

(4) I sincerely hope the student's physical recovery goes well. We'll all agree on that.

(5) Hands-on learning is a must, and not just for STEM fields. Real doing comes with real danger, whether you're using a hot-glue gun, a laser, or a lathe. One of the CATASTROPHES of modern schools is that for all our talk, teachers are afraid to do anything real... and the kids suffer in the long term. Gross negligence is one thing, but we need to avoid legal precedents that punish schools who don't baby-proof their classrooms.

Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 14, 2018 at 7:13 pm

There is a sad irony that we are reading about this on the day of yet another school shooting where life will never be the same again for all those at the school.

Yes, hands off stuff is great fun. I remember doing things in school that would never be allowed today, not sure if I remember the science behind all of them but I definitely remember the fun and the break from monotonous lessons. Saying that I don't remember any accidents either.

I suppose that this enthusiastic volunteer will never be in the classroom again and that the course will be taught without the practical hands on element. I am very sympathetic to the injured child, definitely not fun and definitely not fair. But it is a sad reality that accidents happen sometimes no matter how careful the precautions and preparations, so the only way to avoid them is to have no hands on classes. No more cooking classes in case someone burns themself, no more sewing in case someone sticks a sewing needle in themself, no car maintenance in case someone drops a tool on their foot because they are not wearing safety shoes and no pe in case someone twists an ankle.

No more volunteers in classrooms unless they have teaching credential. No more drivers for field trips unless they have taken advanced driving classes. No cooking for language classes unless the home kitchens are checked by restaurant style hygiene inspections.

I do feel for this family, but he could have had some similar type of accident riding his bike home from school being hit by a practice baseball thrown in Mitchell Park. I do have sympathy as I said, but I also feel sympathy for the ones who will be affected by this who are the subsequent students in PAUSD who will miss out on the chance for learning something in a fun way. Roll on more hours in the classroom listening to more boring lectures from teachers who are unable to use practical lessons.

Posted by Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Feb 15, 2018 at 7:15 am

We did all kinds of hands on science in school.

And we wore safety goggles.
And kept our distance when launching rockets.

Misfires happen; the safety precautions are well known.

Is it too hard to ask the school to practice basic common sense? I feel bad for the student- it seems like a pretty serious injury.

Maybe this lawsuit will do us a favor and remove reckless teachers. There seems to be no other mechanism for accountability.

(Sad that legit science will be avoided because of lawsuits; if only we had a better way of managing our schools).

Posted by Researcher
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 15, 2018 at 8:27 am

No comment on the merits of the case, but here's some news on the lawyer. Just last month he was charged with allegedly coercing an elderly client to bequeath him a large amount of money.

Web Link

Posted by cvvhrn
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 15, 2018 at 9:26 am

cvvhrn is a registered user.

First off I would like to echo the sentiments that Frankie put forth

I would also like to point out that this kid also spoke at the JLS commencement and made jokes about the whole incident. All the school is quilty of here is trying to take a whole boring subject and show that it has real life expectations.

If this is the standard then we should remove anything that has even the potiential for injury. That is PE, bikes, any hands on STEM stuff, etc etc. ban recess. Etc. forget walking too..........

Posted by Another Parent
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 15, 2018 at 12:46 pm

Well, the same year as this student - the PE staff was so careless at JLS. My student had an injury - thankfully not a lasting one, but one that took about a month to recover. The PE staff ignored all the safety rules and guidelines an in an attempt to conduct the lesson, allowed the kids to do activities on an unmarked field.

I wrote to the principal a couple of times - the intention was to bring this to her notice so that she could put in guidelines to prevent this from happening again. the emails were not responded to at all ..

I appreciate the efforts the teachers take to provide a good experience / quality / work with the limitations ( yes they certainly do make every effort ) however they need to take the feedback from parents in situations where the kids are exposed to unsafe conditions and make changes.

I was so not impressed with the JLS principal .. she took the school back light ages from where Ms. Ofek had brought it to ..

Posted by HL
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Feb 15, 2018 at 1:23 pm

My daughter was in Ms. Duffek's class last year, the same grade as the student who was injured. It is very unfortunate that he sustained those injuries. However, I am very sad to see this lawsuit against the school and especially against Ms. Duffek. She was an amazing teacher to my daughter, and really sparked the love of math and science through activities like this one! JLS has many wonderful teachers and I don't want that to get lost in the media around lawsuits such as this.

Posted by Stew Pid
a resident of Community Center
on Feb 15, 2018 at 2:44 pm

Whenever something as massive as a potato is being propelled at high speed, it makes sense to take precautions and ensure that kids are safe. Protective eyewear should have been used. The adults do appear to have been negligent.

Posted by Another Parent
a resident of Gunn High School
on Feb 15, 2018 at 3:09 pm

I'm afraid I agree with @Stew and other comments above. My experience at JLS, including during Ofek's tenure, was that safety was only important if it was ultra-convenient and free. There was something in that culture that confused safety and caution with overprotective parenting, i.e., anyone with inconvenient safety concerns was treated badly or even socially gaslighted by employees.

The importance of protective eyewear in science experiments isn't news in school. Responsible adults need to take responsibility for the lapse in reasonable oversight and the harm it caused a student in their charge.

People make mistakes, that's why insurance exists. The student will have to pay more of the recovery to a lawyer if the district digs in, instead of using it to offset some of the damage to his/her loss of vision. The district should settle and initiate steps to ensure a culture of safety first in the future.

Posted by LIFE is risky.
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 15, 2018 at 3:25 pm

LIFE is risky. is a registered user.

Living an interesting and useful life is risky. $4 million? Seriously?

Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Feb 15, 2018 at 5:41 pm

Spoiler alert. The district lets volunteers every day on campuses with zero formal vetting. Brilliant.

Posted by Moderation
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 15, 2018 at 7:10 pm

I guess my Mom was right.
"You'll put somebody's eye out with one of those things".

Posted by GrandmaKK
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 15, 2018 at 8:00 pm

To those bemoaning the 4million, you need to understand that the attorney will take a good portion of anything that is awarded. And you need to understand the price of medicine now and for the rest of the student’s life.

Posted by JLS Parent
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 15, 2018 at 8:48 pm

It is such a shame that this accident happened and such a shame that the student had to suffer and will continue to feel the effects of this injury for the rest of his life. Like others have said, safety glasses should have been used.


It's also a shame that the family felt the need to sue the school, likely causing a huge amount of stress for some of the best teachers in the school, and a well-meaning volunteer. Hopefully PAUSD has some good insurance for stuff like this.

Its also a shame that due to this accident and the subsequent lawsuit, my own JLS 7th grader will likely be deprived of this amazing learning opportunity. I wish it could still be done, but with safety glasses!!

And finally, it's a shame that a well-meaning (and, it sounds like amazing) volunteer will likely no longer volunteer--as others have said, we need more caring adults, and lawsuits like this make it much less appealing to volunteer.

Accidents happen, and it's too terrible this one was not prevented with safety glasses. But in this case, our litigious society is really harming some of our most valued community members (excellent teachers, amazing volunteers), depriving our students of wonderful learning opportunities, and decreasing the likelihood that we retain great teachers and volunteers and recruit new ones. SUCH A BUMMER.

Posted by JLS Parent
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 15, 2018 at 8:51 pm

I should add that Ms. Fee is an AMAZING teacher. My son is taking one of her electives right now and loves her. It saddens me to think of the stress this lawsuit must be causing her. I can only imagine that it makes it harder for her to do her job and could be affecting her teaching. And yet she must still be doing a wonderful job because my son is enjoying her teaching so much. Thank you Ms. Fee!

Posted by Greta
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 16, 2018 at 7:39 am

Here is how you instill the warranted respect for this supercool experiment. Put a watermelon in front of the potato cannon with goggles on and fire. Video tape for reference. Spoiler: Good luck finding the goggles in one piece!
Case closed.
I can only express my support for Ms. Duffek. She‘s a keeper!

Posted by Another Parent
a resident of Gunn High School
on Feb 16, 2018 at 9:57 pm

@JLS Parent,
If it makes you feel any better, lawsuits like these are often not about whether the person involved is a "bad" person. Sometimes it's just about the particulars of the law or insurance coverage, or theories of liability.

For example, I had a relative who was involved in an accident while his wife was getting cancer treatment. The person he hit sued him. He was very upset about this because he thought the person should have sued his insurance company for not paying. But the way the laws are in our state, we don't have no fault and we don't have the right to sue insurers as third-parties. If someone else is at fault, if the other guy's insurance company is committing bad faith and not paying, all you have the right to do is sue the other guy, not his insurance company. Then when the other guy loses, HE can sue his own insurance company for bad faith. As you can imagine, few people do this so insurance companies end up without enough incentive to behave in good faith.

The same thing happens in someone builds a house badly. If the owner sues the contractor, it's typical for the contractor to turn around and sue all the subs whether they did anything wrong or not. But the cases also get consolidated to reduce court costs, so the subs end up essentially thinking the owner sued them. It's really messed up.

Then there is the issue of policy limits. It may be necessary for the lawyers to sue everyone involved because the primary entity responsible doesn't have enough coverage, and if they dig in (as they are likely to do), plaintiffs lawyers pretty much have to sue everyone in order to recover court and legal costs to wage such a case and recover anything at all for the client.

Studies of these kinds of situations show that costs are lower overall if they are settled fast, and this gives the injured student the most recovery for their medical and related costs. Even if they get half of what is asked, which is doubtful, it won't last long given such a grave injury and possibly permanent disability. Which brings up the other problem in these cases -- the student isn't given the opportunity to wait a few years to see how it goes, there is a hard limit of a year to sue. They have to go with the most likely prognosis and projected costs.

Again, this may not feel great to the teachers involved, but I hope they understand that they made a pretty basic mistake (high speed projectiles - children - safety glasses) and learn from it to everyone's benefit instead of what usual happens in our district.

That said, I am concerned to see this situation that a volunteer in the school could even be liable to the same degree as the supervising teachers. It just shouldn't be possible that school volunteers aren't covered by the school's insurance. If the school district doesn't both take responsibility and demonstrate that it cares both about the welfare and safety of students and volunteers, this could have the chilling effect described above (not the lawsuit itself).

Posted by PAUSD don't settle
a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 17, 2018 at 12:22 am

I suspect a PA jury will not be terribly sympathetic to this family's case against the dedicated teachers and parent volunteer.

Posted by Reputation
a resident of Community Center
on Feb 17, 2018 at 9:27 am

The school district has the reputation of only responding when sued hard.

It’s not our “litigious society” at fault here.

Posted by Old Timer
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 17, 2018 at 11:33 am

@reputation, a monetary claim like this is just handed over to the insurance company, who hands it to a lawyer. They then decide how to handle, including whether and how much to settle for. It really has no impact on the district and barely involves them.

Posted by Our costs
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 17, 2018 at 3:08 pm

Suing deep pockets, whether they settlebor not, emds up costing all of us more for our policies.
Cakifornia = sue - happy state. Be advised.

Posted by Resident
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 18, 2018 at 3:13 am

Classes with experiments like these is what get's kids enthused about science. So now these outdoor classes are gone due to this lawsuit. So now they squashed the next Steve Jobs, Larry Page ect... Oh well, we can always look forward to the next tech person to come here from overseas where they do not have lawsuits like these.

Posted by Reader
a resident of Palo Verde
on Feb 18, 2018 at 7:48 am

Read Jordan Peterson on why it is important not to stop kids from playing on skateboards.

His comments are coming from the place that we are preventing our boys in particular from taking risks and growing into the kind of men society needs. He puts it better than I can, but there is a link between being too protective towards children and the ability of those children growing into helpless adults who always need someone else to look after them.

Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 18, 2018 at 8:10 am

Unless the family makes a statement about the particulars, it is impossible to know what is really going on, but, I have my suspicions, based on a couple incidents in my life. Health insurance may be behind it-- health insurance companies are always looking for ways to make someone else pay hospital bills.

Posted by Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Feb 18, 2018 at 12:29 pm

Why haven’t the teachers responsible been fired?

Violation of safety policies, reckless endangerment, blinding a student?

Literally, how much incompetence and mayhem must they cause before they are held accountable?

Where is the Super? Where is the board?

Our children are NOT being cared for, and those who harm them are not held accountable.

Posted by Another Parent
a resident of St. Claire Gardens
on Feb 19, 2018 at 9:29 am

@Parent, apparently you were never a teenager. If you were, maybe you'd remember that even with the best supervision, sometimes accidents happen. You can't protect children from everything. If you do, you create an incompetent adult. Our children are greatly cared for. In my experience most teachers care for their students. As others have already stated on the board here, this teacher has been outstanding. [Portion removed.]

Posted by concerned
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 19, 2018 at 11:38 am

•Best recovery wishes to injured student. Wishes of support to teachers-they must feel absolutely awful.
•We can all agree that encouraging youngsters to take risks & independently problem-solve & independently handle the consequences & land on their feet with resilience builds necessary life skills. School experiences play an important role in developing these skills. Schools are only one step on the road to a child achieving this goal, and any activities that lead to achieving this goal need to be school-appropriate, highly supervised, with the experiment steps & pre-planned safety precautions receiving pre-approval by the administration (risk management by the district office), and the students should be very well taught about safety precautions and closely supervised in small groups. If this can't be accomplished, then it's an activity parents can assume responsibility for at home.
•No one at any school can "prevent boys in particular from taking risks and growing into the kind of men society needs." If parents want to help their children take risks they have complete freedom at home to involve their children into activities that promote growth. Parents, take it on at home. Camping, rock climbing, scouts, sports, etc.
•Schools have an enormous responsibility not just to build academics, build character, promote group norms & cooperation, and above all, to keep students safe while at school and send them home in the same condition they arrived at school.
•No blame to the teachers, children, or anyone. Sounds like a well-intentioned (& probably well-planned) activity that took a tragic turn, and that is an opportunity for refinement & growth to prevent future occurrences. As long as we all live, we'll have to work together to grow, learn, and work together to put constantly evolving safeguards in place.

Posted by Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Feb 19, 2018 at 7:23 pm

@another parent writes:” You can't protect children from everything. If you do, you create an incompetent adult.”

And if the students weren’t given safety goggles, then what?

Should we just keep excusing the injury and harm to our children? When is accountability ever applied to schools?


I think the teacher, regardless who, should be fired. It will remove someone careless, and send a message to others:

1) we care for our children’s safety. You better get with the program.

2) follow policy. Put some goggles on.

Simple message. Hard to argue with.(but I’m sure the apologists will try)

Posted by children
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 20, 2018 at 10:49 am

If this family looked at this districts response to past and read the Cozen report that staff was trained not to respond, what else should they do? I hope this helps the school really understand that every lab needs to be approved. They need a central trained person that will approve the labs and designate safety precautions.

For all the people saying how important it is for children to take risks, I do not think that applies. This was not their choice to take a risk. There was no opt out. Children should be taught to avoid known risks and they should be able to not participate after they are told. Each kid can take whatever risk they want to after school, adults can not expose them to known risks. That is just silly. This poor teacher needed a person to help her look at the lab. I think many elementary teachers are expected to know every subject, buy many do not have a lab science background and would never have expected this to happen. I think they call the person in charge of all labs at a school the forensics person? Usually in high school, there are more labs. Harker school does a very, very nice job getting real labs with real equipment and with extremely great safety lessons along the way at a very early age. This is a program the district should look at and try to emulate so they will have total control over the labs. Teaching the kids words like never and always is really important. Always wear goggles, always look before crossing a street, always wear a seatbelt. They need this training so they will have a good idea of work ethic, lab ethic and be safe when they know there are risks.

Posted by children
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 20, 2018 at 10:51 am

@parent, you are too harsh. I am sure this teacher will respond nicely and only wanted the best for all her kids.

Posted by Parent
a resident of Gunn High School
on Feb 20, 2018 at 3:31 pm

@Reader and Resident, and Another Parent

Your poor analogies are not helpful. This is not the equivalent of saying kids can't use the shop equipment because something can go wrong, it's the equivalent of saying the shop teacher was negligent for failing to have the class use the safety glasses that are just the most basic and common sense equipment and used by anyone running a safety-oriented shop. As the shop teacher will tell you, accidents are bad for programs like that, so follow basic safety procedures. There is nothing new about ensuring that anyone working with high speed projectiles wears safety googles.

If you decide that you won't use safety equipment in a shop and then have an accident and decide that no one should use shops because they are dangerous, that's just double stupidity. If these teachers understood the lesson they were trying to teach, they would have handed out safety goggles which are usually standard equipment in school science labs. If they weren't, then that's an even more serious problem brought to light by the completely avoidable accident.

Teaching safety as part of lab science isn't some kind of frivolous add on, it's an essential part of the education. If the teachers had just followed the most basic safety procedures this child would not have been injured. Trying to make this about whether we should have activities like this is dishonest. There would have been no eye injury risk if basic safety procedures, i.e. Pulling out the classroom safety goggles because of an experiment involving high speed projectiles, had been followed. This wasn't a grey area - which is why it was negligent. I like the teachers, too, but they made a mistake. We should learn from it, try to make amends, and move on, not act as if ignoring safety is excusable.

Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 20, 2018 at 3:48 pm

The article does not mention safety goggles. The article says that the potato gun worked pushing out the projectile some time after the switch had been pressed.

Now I wasn't present. The article doesn't mention goggles, but it seems to me that perhaps the article is misleading or not telling the full story. From my memories of experiments at school safety equipment is put on just before the experiment takes place and probably taken off as soon as it goes off, or perhaps fails to go off as in this case.

If those of us want to know exactly what happened then perhaps we should know if there were any safety goggles available, had they been handed out to all participants and with what types of instructions. Had the instructions been followed?

Without the relevant information available we can only use what is available in the article which may or may not have been misleading.

Posted by Parent
a resident of Gunn High School
on Feb 20, 2018 at 8:16 pm

I just asked - My child has done this experiment at JLS and doesn’t remember safety goggles. I never knew about this.

People don’t wear safety belts because an accident happens every day, they do because people make mistakes and when accidents happen, seatbelts are a cheap way to dramatically improve the outcome. Safety goggles, too. Because the outcome of things going wrong is so unacceptable and so easy to prevent.

Posted by Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Feb 21, 2018 at 7:38 am

In 7th grade, we built rockets and launched them. Everyone wore goggles. A few misfires happened, and the teacher dealt with the problem. Nobody hurt.

That was common practice 35 years ago.

Our schools are different today- they don’t use best practices or state of the art teaching methods in many instances. They are not learning institutions: they don’t learn from previous generations of teachers. They don’t learn from mistakes, they don’t learn from widespread research or even the mistakes of others.

Each classroom is an island. With its own little Queen working hard as hell to avoid being managed as part of a system.

Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 24, 2018 at 12:26 am

[Post removed.]

Posted by An Engineer
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 24, 2018 at 1:01 pm

"After several seconds the gun suddenly discharged striking (the student) in his face and causing significant permanent injuries. ... The alleged incident has permanently damaged the student's retina, Van Der Walde said, and caused an orbital fracture, or a traumatic injury to the bone of the eye socket."

The student was clearly hit by something possessing enough energy to shatter bone. A point-blank shot might well do that. Yet "... the student was not looking down the barrel of the gun but "his eye was in the general vicinity above the potato gun." " So, was the student struck by a fragment of the projectile shot sideways with substantial energy, or was he struck by the recoiling gun itself? If the latter, as seems more likely from the story, why was the gun not properly anchored to the table to prevent this?

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