Toolbox Tuesday!! Time to talk to the SROs

The Toolbox is a full day training program designed to help schools serve students with disabilities effectively even when the students present challenging behaviors.  The goal is to maintain safety for all, and at the same time, continue to serve the student who is disruptive or violent.  Unfortunately, such situations sometimes involve Tool #10—calling in law enforcement.  That’s a tool that is available but there are some risks to keep in mind.  So let me tell you about a recent court decision from Katy ISD.

The opening line in the court’s opinion tells us that “A public school officer in the Katy ISD’s police department tased and handcuffed J.W., a 17-year old special education student.” The mother sued the district and the officer, alleging excessive use of force and violations of various legal standards.   The court describes J.W. as a big fellow—6’2” and 250 pounds. He was in the special education program due to an emotional disturbance and an intellectual disability.  These disabilities impacted the student’s ability to control his emotions. 

He got out of control on November 30, 2016 when a card game with another student escalated into bickering and a physical fight. As usual, the parties told different versions of what happened. School officials described a student who was yelling, cursing and hurling a desk across the room. The student denied much of that, but acknowledged that he had walked out of the classroom and was attempting to leave the building in order to “chill out.” 

Things escalated at the doorway when school officials attempted to keep the boy from leaving the building.  This is where the SRO showed up.  Part of what happened was captured on the SRO’s body camera.  It showed the SRO firing a taser.  J.W. screamed and fell to his knees. Five seconds later the video shows the SRO beginning to “drive stun” the student.  This involves holding the taser against the body without deploying the prongs.  The court tells us that “This use of the taser on J.W.’s upper back continues after J.W. is lying face down on the ground and not struggling.”  Another officer then handcuffed the student, and then the SRO pointed the taser at J.W.’s head and said “I did not want to tase you, but you do not run s*** around here, you understand?”  The body camera captured this.

The student had humiliating physical reactions to this, both urinating and defecating on himself. He said that he had difficulty breathing.  The SRO observed this and promptly called for emergency medical services, including the school nurse, who attended to the student. EMS arrived shortly.  After all of this, the student missed several months of school. The mother attributed this to his fears, intense anxiety and PTSD.   The parties ended up in litigation, with the mother asserting that the district had violated Section 504, the ADA and various constitutional provisions.

The SRO asked to be dismissed from the case based on “qualified immunity.”  This protects governmental officials from personal liability unless they violate federal legal standards that are so “clearly established” that they should have known better. Several pages of the court’s decision describe previous cases involving the use of force in the school setting, and the arguments of both sides in this case. Bottom line: the court concluded that the facts here were too unsettled for it to toss the case out at this early stage.  Did the student push a staff member in an effort to leave the building?  The court thought that was an important factor, but the facts were not clear.  Then there was this:

And [the SRO] did not stop using the taser when J.W. stopped resisting.  The record evidence of [the SRO’s] interactions with J.W. shows genuine factual disputes material to deciding whether the tasing itself, its length, and its intensity, were objectively reasonable.  These disputes preclude summary judgment.

The court ended up dismissing all of the claims against the district for reasons too complicated to explain here. But the claim against the SRO for excessive use of force is still alive.  When you talk to SROs and other law enforcement personnel about the use of force, this might be a good case to bring up. This is particularly true in light of the new restrictions on the use of “aversive techniques” that go into effect next school year.

The case is Washington v. Katy ISD. Decided by the federal district court for the Southern District of Texas on June 5, 2019.  We found it at 74 IDELR 157.


Tomorrow: new rules for public comment at board meetings.