Toolbox Tuesday!! Another instance of qualified immunity

“Qualified immunity” has been in the news of late.  There was an editorial in the local newspaper a few weeks ago encouraging Congress to do away with it altogether. This obscure legal doctrine protects governmental officials from personal liability for injuries they cause as long as they did not violate legal standards that are “clearly established.”  The move to abolish qualified immunity picked up momentum after George Floyd’s death while in police custody, and most of the news stories about qualified immunity are about law enforcement officials using physical force.  Many police officers have avoided personal liability in court cases by establishing that what they did was not obviously and clearly a violation of settled standards. 

Qualified immunity does not just protect police officers. It also protects school administrators who make judgment calls that might later be second guessed by a judge. For example, the Supreme Court ruled that an assistant principal in Arizona went too far when he ordered the strip search of a 13-year old girl in pursuit of a prescription pill. But the Court also held that the A.P. could not be held personally liable for this unconstitutional search because the law about strip searches was not “clearly established.”  Safford USD #1 v. Redding (2009). 

Principals would be wise to occasionally remind staff members that they do face personal liability if they violate legal standards that are clearly established.  This reminder should be particularly emphasized with campus police officers or SROs who sometimes use physical force with students.  We have a good example in a recent decision from a federal court in Ohio.  The court denied qualified immunity to an SRO who marched an 11-year old to the office in handcuffs, which remained on the boy for 15 to 20 minutes.  The SRO faces potential liability for unconstitutional seizure and disability discrimination. 

I have to think that it didn’t help the SRO’s cause that his explanation of the incident to the mother was contradicted by school surveillance video. 

In our firm’s Toolbox Training we talk quite a bit about physical restraint, when it should be used, and how it should be documented.  If you are interested in this one-day training program focusing on appropriate discipline of students with disabilities, let me hear from you. Today’s case is M.P. v. Monroe Local Schools, decided by the federal court for the Southern District of Ohio on September 30, 2021. It’s reported in Special Ed Connection at 79 IDELR 219. 


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Tomorrow: our first Sheesh-O-Meter case of 2022!