Trey Clayton, a high school student in Mississippi, filed a federal lawsuit alleging that his constitutional rights were violated when the assistant principal whacked him on the buttocks three times with a paddle. No doubt that hurt, but the real damage occurred when Trey subsequently fainted and fell, face first, on a concrete floor. With a broken jaw and five missing teeth, the student asserted his rights under the 8th and 14th Amendments.
The 5th Circuit dismissed the case. The Supreme Court long ago held that the 8th Amendment (the one about “cruel and unusual” punishments) applies only in the context of criminal prosecution, not student discipline. So the 8th Amendment argument did not work.
Nor did the argument about Due Process under the 14th Amendment. Students are entitled to due process in connection with corporal punishment, but that process can consist of remedies available under state law. Does Mississippi allow students to recover damages from school officials who are excessive in administering corporal punishment? It does. The 5th Circuit held that this was all of the process that was due.
The most creative argument Mr. Clayton put forth was the Equal Protection claim under the 14th Amendment. The argument was that the district paddled boys more often than girls, and that this was based on the “institutional bias” that boys violated school rules more often. There was no evidence in the record to support this claim.
If the point of the lawsuit is to recover financial damages for the busted jaw and knocked out teeth, a simple “excessive force” claim in state court may have been more effective. Often, however, suits like this are efforts to persuade a federal court to make a bigger point, by declaring corporal punishment unconstitutional. Once again, that did not work.
The case is Clayton v. Tate County School District, 2014 WL 1202515 (5th Cir. 2014, unpublished).
DAWG BONE: CORPORAL PUNISHMENT IS CONSTITUTIONAL. BUT EXCESSIVE CORPORAL PUNISHMENT VIOLATES STATE LAW