The “clock boy” suit comes to a close.

In a very brief opinion, the 5th Circuit has affirmed the ruling of the lower court in the legendary “clock boy” case from Irving ISD.  Don’t remember the clock boy?  Let me refresh your memory.

On September 14, 2015, a 14-year old freshman at MacArthur High School in Irving ISD brought a homemade contraption to school.  He showed it to his geometry teacher, who told him it was “really nice.” Later he showed it to his English teacher.  She asked him “Is that a bomb?”  “No,” the boy responded, “it’s an alarm clock, see?”

Thus began the transformation of this obscure young man from an anonymous high school student into his new destiny: the Irving Clock Boy.

Just google it and see what happens. 

As most readers know, the boy was questioned, handcuffed, arrested, charged with a crime and suspended from school for three days.  The alleged crime was possession of a “hoax bomb.”  Later all charges were dropped, and the Irving police chief acknowledged that the entire arrest was a mistake.

The parents sued the City of Irving, the school district, the principal and several police officers.  In a decision handed down on March 13, 2018, federal judge Sam Lindsay dismissed all of the claims.  Now, the appellate court has affirmed that decision.

The case is largely about the legal doctrine of “qualified immunity.”  Qualified immunity is designed to protect governmental officials who have to make tough judgment calls.  The idea behind qualified immunity is that a government official (police officer, teacher, administrator) should not have to face legal liability just because they made a bad call.  They should be held liable only when they do something that is colossally stupid or in clear violation of the law.  I’ve not seen a case that uses the term “colossally stupid” but I think that gets at the general idea. Here is what the cases do say:

Qualified immunity is designed to protect from civil liability “all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.”

The lawyers for the clock boy argued that the overreaction of the Irving officials in this case satisfied that standard. The court disagreed. In so doing, the court separately analyzed the actions of the principal, the arresting officers, and the other police officers.  For our purposes, we will focus on the school principal.

The principal gave the “clock boy” a three day suspension after he was arrested and charged with possession of a hoax bomb.  As a government official who is responsible for making discretionary judgment calls every day, the principal was entitled to “qualified immunity.”  To overcome that, the plaintiff had to produce evidence that would show that the principal was “plainly incompetent” or “violated clearly established law.”

The plaintiff failed to do that.  In an earlier ruling in the same case, the judge wrote eloquently about the difficulties principals face these days:

Woe unto the principal who fails to act on a potential threat that later becomes a reality!  To hold Principal Cummings, or any other administrator, to this standard places him between the dreaded Scylla and Charbydis.

I don’t know where Scylla and Charbydis are, (east of Waco maybe?) but it certainly sounds like they are akin to the proverbial “rock” and “hard place.” 

After that ruling, the plaintiff was given the opportunity to re-plead his case to try to convince the court that the principal should be held liable. In the amended complaint the plaintiff pointed out something that had not been mentioned before—that the principal failed to comply with a procedure set out in the student handbook.  That procedure read as follows:

LAW ENFORCEMENT AGENCIES (All Grade Levels) Questioning of Students
The principal will verify and record the identity of the officer or other authority and ask for an explanation of the need to question or interview the student at school
The principal ordinarily will make reasonable efforts to notify the parents unless the interviewer raises what the principal considers to be a valid objection. (Emphasis added).

According to the allegations in the suit, which the court was assuming to be accurate, the kid was grilled at length by several armed and uniformed officers without notice to his parents, despite his repeated requests to call them.  In other words, the plaintiff did allege facts indicating that the principal violated, or at least ignored, the student handbook.  Is that a violation of “clearly established law”?

The court said no:

A deviation from an entity’s internal procedures, without more, does not show discriminatory intent or amount to a constitutional violation, as constitutional requirements may nevertheless have been met.

Thus the case against the principal, like the case against the district, was dismissed.  However, this one serves as another reminder of how important it is to follow district policy and procedure. In fact, that “procedure” in the student handbook is taken directly from Policy GRA (Local).  Check out your district’s version of GRA (Local). There is a good chance that your district has adopted the same policy.

The case is Mohamed v. Irving ISD, decided by the federal court for the Northern District of Texas on March 13, 2018.  We found it at 2018 WL 1305455. The 5th Circuit decision was issued on March 19, 2019 and is at 2019 WL 1299923. 


Tomorrow:  A school bus accident leads to litigation.