Another claim of excessive force.

Yesterday we told you about the federal court’s decision in a case alleging excessive force with an 8-year old.   In its opinion the court cited a 5th Circuit decision from 1998 that involved a 5-year old in kindergarten.  Today, we’ll tell you about that one.

When we read of the use of force on a very young child it does raise an eyebrow.  The most shocking allegation in the suit was that the student was “slammed to the ground” by a police officer.   The 5th Circuit judges noted that this “causes us concern.” But it was not enough to keep the suit alive. The court dismissed it, finding that there was no constitutional violation.

The judges seemed skeptical of the body-slam allegation, noting that:

other evidence in the record belies any inference that, if he was thrown to the ground, it was with unreasonable force.  Deposition testimony and medical records of the doctor who examined Dennis make clear that he did not suffer any significant harm as a result of the incident. 

The decision rests squarely on the deference that federal courts owe to public school administrators.  Key Quotes:

The fact that less force could have been used, or that a more appropriate punishment may have been available is not enough to establish that the punishment administered was unconstitutional. 

The 4th Amendment’s reasonableness standard must afford school officials with a relatively wide range of acceptable action in dealing with disruptive students. 

This approach is “consistent with the Supreme Court’s view ‘that the education of the Nation’s youth is primarily the responsibility of parents, teachers, and state and local officials, and not federal judges.’”

Some people hear of court decisions like this and wonder: are the courts saying that it is OK for a police officer to slam a 5-year old to the ground?   Not at all.  Any school employee who uses excessive force can be 1) charged with child abuse; 2) charged with a criminal assault; 3) sued personally in state court; and 4) fired.  There is no immunity that applies in those cases.  The school employee would be subject to the same consequences as any other person who injures another person through the use of excessive force. 

The message is not that excessive force by teachers and administrators is OK. It’s not. The message is that our foundational document—the Constitution—does not address these issues. Take them up in state court.

The 5th Circuit decided Campbell v. McAlister on October 20, 1998.  We found it at 162 F.3d 94. 


We’ll be back with more Dawg Bones next week!