Teacher facing liability for 4th Amendment violation

A classroom teacher in South Dakota is facing possible personal liability for violating the constitutional rights of a student with a disability through the habitual use of seclusion. Here is what the plaintiff alleges:

On a regular basis, [the teacher] and her two teaching aides physically picked up and carried students—who sometimes resisted by kicking and screaming—from class to the little room . Once there, students had to demonstrate calm behavior and complete several “task baskets” unrelated to whatever disciplinary infraction led to their visit before they were permitted to leave. Either [the teacher] or an aide would wait outside and hold the door shut until they gained compliance. Students sat in the little room for up to hours at a time, with a few instances extending to as long as an entire afternoon.

The “little room” was 10x10 with a window in the door, a small table, a whiteboard and cupboards. Between October 26, 2015 and March 1, 2016 one student (A.A.) was sent to the little room 274 times. Another student (B.B.) was confined to the “calm down corner” which was in an atrium adjacent to the classroom. Staff made sure the student did not leave. The suit also alleges that the teacher forced B.B. into the swimming pool and once held down a third student (C.C.), forcibly stripped him of his clothes and put his bathing suit on him. The court held that these were unreasonable seizures under the 4th Amendment because they “substantially departed from accepted standards”:

She habitually secluded A.A. and B.B. for minor disciplinary infractions with no evidence that they posed imminent risk of harm to themselves or anyone else. And she restrained B.B. and C.C. to coerce compliance with routine directives to get in a pool and change clothes.

The court held that the right of the students to be free from such harsh treatment was “clearly established” and so the teacher was not entitled to qualified immunity.

The court emphasized that “an ordinary school timeout is not a 4th Amendment seizure.” The court also noted that physical restraint is permitted when necessary to prevent imminent harm. The problem here is that this student presented no such danger and the teacher’s practices, as alleged in the suit, went far beyond professionally accepted standards.

This was all in the context of the teacher’s Motion to Dismiss, which means the court was required to assume the truth of all of these horrific allegations. Now the parent will have the burden of proving the truth of the allegations

But for us in Texas this high level ruling from the 8th Circuit sends a clear message about the limits we should observe in the use of restraint.

It’s Doe v. Aberdeen School District, decided by the 8th Circuit on August 1, 2022. It’s published by Special Educator at 81 IDELR 121.


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