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School Use Of Force

Jack Ryan

An issue which sometimes arises in the context of the school environment is the use of force against a student. The facts surrounding this use of force may determine how a court will analyze the force. Will it may analyzed under a Fourth Amendment reasonableness analysis?; Will it be analyzed as a substantive due process violation? Or; Will it be analyzed as corporal punishment for which there are state remedies?

On November 16, 2004, the United States Court of Appeal reviewed the dismissal of federal claims in a case involving allegations by a special education high-school student that he was attacked by a teacher.

Flores v. Desoto Parish et al., 2004 U.S. App. LEXIS 23955 (5th 2004) involved a 15 year-old student. Kevin Flores alleged that he had been released from detention to attend an assembly. While walking in the hallway, Kevin was confronted by a teacher/coach, who accused him of trying to skip detention. The teacher then ordered Kevin to eat his lunch in the detention room. When Kevin questioned this order, the teacher became angry.

Kevin alleged that the teacher then brought Kevin into the room and ordered other students out of the room. The teacher was alleged to have taken off his tie, rolled up his sleeves and physically threatened Kevin. It is then alleged that the teacher threw Kevin against a wall and grabbed him by the throat, choking him. The teacher allegedly concluded by telling Kevin not to report this encounter because no one would believe him anyway.

When other students returned to the classroom they noticed that Kevin was having trouble breathing and that his face was red. When the teacher refused to allow Kevin to go to the principal’s office, other students used their cellular telephones to call 911 and Kevin’s father. School officials denied that this incident took place and based on these events, Kevin was forced to choose between going to an alternative school or expulsion. Kevin’s parents filed a lawsuit in which they alleged that the teacher’s acts were inflicted maliciously with intent to cause harm and were not based on any disruption caused by Kevin or for pedagogical purposes.

In reviewing the case, the 5th Circuit expressly refused to analyze the case under a Fourth Amendment, reasonableness standard. The court cited other circuits which have held that " a teacher’s use of force is more properly regarded as a condition of the school environment in which students’ liberty is already curtailed…Such use of force is not a ‘scenario to which the Fourth Amendment…textually or historically applies.’"

The court then noted its previous position that allegations of excessive corporal punishment involving a school student is not a substantive due process claim either. In analyzing the facts, the court concluded that the teacher’s actions were in response to Kevin returning to detention late. Thus, the acts were not a malicious and sadistic unprovoked attack but were intended to be punitive.

Once the court concluded that the acts were punitive and therefore constituted corporal punishment it applied the legal rules of the 5th Circuit on corporal punishment. Consistently with its previous rulings, the court held that Kevin’s only remedy for the acts alleged was in state court.

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