If the teacher thought the use of force was reasonable does that mean that it was reasonable?

This is our third entry this week on the case of Dallas ISD v. Peters, a case involving the termination of an assistant principal.  Earlier, we pointed out how the court dealt with the fact that the board voted on the matter in closed session, which they should not have done.  If you want to know why that was not enough for the A.P. to win his case, you have to go back and read the Daily Dawg for Monday and Wednesday. Today, we’re going to discuss the substance of the case—did the A.P., in fact, use excessive force?

The independent hearing examiner found the man guilty of this charge.  On appeal, the A.P. argued that the Texas Education Code granted him immunity for the use of force.  Section 22.0512(a) says that a professional employee “may not be subject to disciplinary proceedings for the employee’s use of physical force against a student to the extent justified under Section 9.62, Penal Code.”

That Penal Code provision authorizes non-deadly force by educators “when and to the degree the actor reasonably believes the force is necessary” to further the “special purpose or to maintain discipline in a group.”  There has been much confusion and considerable litigation over the phrase: “the actor reasonably believes.”  Just what, exactly, does that mean?

Here is the Key Quote, and the takeaway from this case:

Reasonable belief involves an objective—not subjective—standard defined as “a belief that would be held by an ordinary and prudent man in the same circumstances as the actor.  Moreover, while the acts of the teacher in using force must be viewed from the teacher’s perspective, this does not mean that the teacher’s testimony must be believed and it does not mean that if a teacher believed his actions were rational the school district must determine the teacher had a rational belief.

Mr. Peters, the A.P. in this case, testified that he thought that his physical restraint of the student was reasonable.  But as the Key Quote illuminates, that’s not enough.  The hearing examiner laid out the facts in detail, along with the testimony of three educators who believed the use of force was “inappropriate, unreasonable, and unnecessary.”

What happened?  Fact findings made by the hearing examiner tell us that 1) the girl left the classroom without permission; 2) in an effort to get her to return to class and apologize to the teacher, the A.P. used physical restraint, forcefully pinning her arm behind her back; 3) the struggle between the two resulted in the girl’s head and body hitting school lockers; and 4) the girl never presented a risk of danger to the A.P. or anyone else. It did not help Mr. Peters’ case that when the 15-year old girl, who stood less than five feet tall, informed him that she was pregnant, his response was “I don’t care.”

The independent hearing examiner found this to be sufficient evidence of excessive force, thus forming “good cause” to justify terminating the man’s employment. The Commissioner of Education found substantial evidence to support the board’s decision, and now the Court of Appeals has affirmed.

The case of Dallas ISD v. Peters was decided by the Court of Appeals for the 5th District of Texas (Dallas) on December 14, 2015.  It can be found at 2015 WL 8732420.