Toolbox Tuesday!! When can individuals be held liable?

Teachers sometimes worry about lawsuits aimed directly at them and the risk of personal liability.  I generally try to calm those troubled waters, pointing out that such suits are exceedingly rare.  But they do happen, and usually such suits are based on behavior that would cause any good teacher to squirm.  So let us consider a recent preliminary decision from North Carolina. 

The court refused to dismiss claims of a denial of due process against two teachers and the principal.  The basis of the claims:

Plaintiffs allege that H.W. was placed in the seclusion room “for extended periods of time, on multiple occasions” and “forgotten” to the point of missing his medications and meals as part of a “standard practice” incorporated to manage his outbursts. 

Allegations that H.W., a special needs student, was placed in a dark seclusion room—in direct violation of North Carolina law, Stanly County policy, and H.W.’s own BIP—on multiple occasions and for extended periods of time, unsupervised, and within reach of cleaning supplies and electrical outlets, plausibly state a violation of his right to bodily integrity. 

The principal claimed qualified immunity, but it was denied because of the allegations that he knowingly violated state law, school policy and the student’s BIP, thus exceeding his discretionary authority.  The Director of Student Services and Director for Exceptional Children were dismissed from the case as there was no allegation of their personal knowledge or involvement. The claim against the district was also dismissed, but the principal and two classroom teachers are still defendants in this litigation.

The court’s ruling is a stretch from existing precedent, but that can happen when the court is only making a preliminary ruling.  Due process claims are usually based on a total exclusion from school by way of suspension or expulsion.  Here, the exclusion was the repeated use of a seclusion room.  Claims of an infringement of the right to bodily integrity are usually based on sexual misconduct or physical abuse, but here the claim is based on the use of an unsafe seclusion room. So the court is stretching things a bit, but that can happen in a preliminary ruling, which assumes the truth of the allegations in the suit and the favorable inferences that could be drawn from those allegations.

The Toolbox is designed to help you stay out of this kind of trouble.  The Toolbox provides participants with a good understanding of the 10 “tools” they have to deal with disruptive students, none of which involve extended seclusion in an unsupervised and dangerous closet-type room.

The case is Brattain v. Stanly County Board of Education, decided by the federal court for the middle district of North Carolina on October 28, 2020.  We found it on Special Ed Connection at 77 IDELR 223.


Tomorrow: A special day.