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Restraint of Autistic Student doesn’t Seize “Excessive Force” Standard

A difficult issue in the school setting is use of force to control students and maintain a safe environment. This issue is more difficult when dealing with students who have disabilities that place them in special education. A recent case from Mississippi provides an example of how courts will analyze such uses of force under state law.

In Pigford v. Jackson Public School District, 2005 Miss. App. LEXIS 90 (Mississippi Ct. App. 2005), the court examined the case of Jacob Pigford, who was described as an autistic student who “could not speak and had the maturity level of a three year old. Jacob was subject to unpredictable outbursts triggered by a variety of things, including sudden noises, unfamiliar surroundings, and unfamiliar persons. Occasionally, Jacob would twirl, spin around, run uncontrollably flaring his arms, hit other students, or drop to the floor and refuse to respond to instructions from his parents or teachers.”

On November 15, 1999, Jacob’s regular teacher was busy with a parent-teacher meeting and was unable to escort Jacob to class. Instead, a teacher’s aide, Magill Jones, and another teacher escorted Jacob. When the bell rang causing a rush of students in the hallway, Jacob began having an anxiety attack. Jones attempted to restrain Jacob by holding his arms, and at one point, trying to lift him off the ground by his arms. This attempt at restraining Jacob left bruising on Jacob’s arms, prompting his parents to file a lawsuit against the school, Jacob’s teacher, and the teacher’s aide.

In reviewing the case, the court noted that under Mississippi state law, before a teacher or school official could be found liable based upon issues of “corporal punishment or the taking of an action to maintain control and discipline of students,” the plaintiff would have to show that the actions of the school official were taken in “bad faith or with malicious purpose or in a manner exhibiting a wanton or willful disregard of human rights or safety.” The court, in applying this standard to the facts here, concluded that Jacob’s parents would not be able to prove that the actions of the teacher’s aide were willful and wanton. Accordingly, their suit based on excessive force failed.

The Pigfords also claimed that the school failed to provide Jacob with a reasonably safe environment. The parents alleged that the school should have had procedures in place such that Jacob would not encounter crowds. The court noted that the “Individuals with Disabilities Act” (IDEA) requires schools to mainstream special education students to the degree possible and provide the least restrictive environment. Further restrictions on Jacob in restricting his ability to be in the hallways with other students would likely fly in the face of this concept. Further, if Jacob’s parents had a concern over this issue, they could have raised it when Jacob’s IEP (Individualized Educational Plan) was created. The court concluded that the school had not failed to provide a safe environment.

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