A Lesson On Constitutional Amendments & School District Liability

This recent case out of Irving Independent School District, Bhombal v. Irving ISD, is a great case study regarding the U.S. constitutional amendments and school district liability.  Z.B. was an elementary student who reportedly had a bomb in his lunch box.  Two weeks later, the principal met with Z.B. and his father, and Z.B. was issued a one-day in-school suspension.  The principal called Z.B. in for a second meeting a few days later, this time without notifying the parent, which was against his parents’ wishes.

When the father learned that Z.B. had been questioned a second time, he removed Z.B. from school.  Later that afternoon, Irving police went to their home and issued the father a criminal trespass warning that prevented him from setting foot on district property.

The lawsuit did not provide details about what led to the trespass warning.  We suspect there is a bit more to the story there.  Not long after, Z.B. was involved in an altercation with some of his classmates.  As a result, he was assigned to a different campus the following school year.

The parent sued the district and the principal on behalf of Z.B. and on his own behalf.  Because it alleged violations of the U.S. Constitution, the suit was filed under the federal statute 42 U.S.C. § 1983.  Section 1983 lawsuits can be brought against the government or a governmental employee acting “under color of” state law.  Both the district and the principal sought dismissal of the suit.  Essentially, they argued that the suit failed to state sufficient facts to support any constitutional claims.

Fourth Amendment.  The Fourth Amendment claim alleged that the father was subjected to an “unreasonable arrest” through issuance of the trespass warning and Z.B. was “unreasonably detained” when he was questioned about the bomb incident.  The Fourth Amendment protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures, including arrests without probable cause.  According to the Court, however, the issuance of a criminal trespass warning and principal’s questioning of Z.B. about the bomb incident did not constitute arrests.  Because neither Z.B. nor his father were “arrested,” the Fourth Amendment claims were dismissed.

Fifth Amendment.  The Fifth Amendment provides a right against self-incrimination, like when people “take the 5th” rather than implicate themselves in some criminal matter.  The suit claimed that the District ran afoul of Z.B.’s Fifth Amendment rights by subjecting him to “repeated interrogations with no good faith basis” and without providing him a Miranda warning (i.e., you have a right to remain silent, … etc.).

The Fifth Amendment, however, only applies to “custodial interrogations,” which involve questioning initiated by law enforcement officers after a person has been taken into custody or otherwise deprived of their freedom in any significant way.  Z.B.’s Fifth Amendment claims failed because he was never questioned by law enforcement.  In addition, the Fifth Amendment does not provide a private cause of action.  Rather, the only remedy for a Fifth Amendment violation is that evidence obtained during an improper interrogation is excluded in a criminal trial.

Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.  The suit next claimed that Z.B.’s Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated because he was subjected to discipline unequal to that imposed on his peers because of his race and religion.  To state a claim of racial and religious discrimination under the Equal Protection Clause and section 1983, there must be allegations that (1) the student received treatment different from that received by similarly situated individuals and that (2) the unequal treatment stemmed from a discriminatory intent.  This claim failed because the suit did not sufficiently allege that Z.B. was treated differently from any other similarly situated student, or that Z.B.’s transfer to a different elementary school was discriminatory punishment for the May 2017 altercation.  There were also no facts to show any discriminatory animus based upon Z.B.’s race or religion.

Ultimately the Court granted the motion to dismiss.  Despite some effort at creative lawyering, the suit simply failed to state facts that amounted to constitutional violations.  The Court did, however, grant the parent one more opportunity to try to state a Fourteenth Amendment discrimination claim on behalf of the student.  It remains to be seen whether he will be able to do so.


Tomorrow:  Parents want student to carry a recording device to school.