Tuesday, April 1, 2014

5th Circuit Upholds Severe Paddling of Student for Being Out of His Seat, Ignoring Fundamental Questions

Last week, in Clayton ex rel. Hamilton v. Tate County School Dist., 2014 WL 1202515 (5th Cir. 2014), the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a student's 8th and 14th amendment challenges to corporal punishment.  In most respects, the case is not striking (no pun intended).  The 5th Circuit routinely entertains and rejects the corporal punishment challenges that so often come out of Texas and Mississippi.  Scholars like Deana Pollard Sacks have written critical and detailed analyses of this line of cases.  See, e.g., State Actors Beating Children:  A Call for Judicial Relief, 42 U.C. Davis L. Rev. 1165 (2009).

But putting aside for the moment the question of whether the constitution should prohibit corporal punishment as a general principle, the question for me is whether this individual child's rights were violated.  To say that Ingraham v. Wright held that corporal punishment is permissible only answers the former question, not the latter.  The latter question requires more serious analysis and issue issues than the 5th Circuit offered.  

The per curium opinion in Clayton is short on facts, but indicates that Clayton, an 8th grade student was sent to the library (presumably some form of detention) because, during English class, some other student was sitting in Clayton's seat.  I take this to mean that Clayton was either not sitting in any seat or was sitting in some seat other than his own.  Either way, some time thereafter, the assistant principal "noticed Clayton sitting in the library and approached him, stating that his bad behavior was going to stop. [The assistant principal] appeared angry and agitated," and told Clayton to follow him to the office, where he "struck Clayton three times on the buttocks with a paddle and 'with excessive and great force.'"  Due to the force, "Clayton fainted and fell, face first, onto the concrete floor," where five of his teeth were shattered and his jaw broken.

Per Ingraham's analysis, the 5th Cir. indicates that if this paddling was excessively administered, there are state statutory procedures in place to address it.  Thus, there is no constitutional analysis to be had.  Moreover, that state process is all the procedural due process a student is owed.  Those analyses, however, ignore the fundamental question regarding whether the exercise of force in response to this particular behavior violates substantive due process, regardless of whether the force was harsher than the typical paddling.  In other words, does the state have a sufficient justification for physically punishing a student for being out of his chair?  To me, the answer is not so clear.  Or to state it another way, does the physical punishment of this student rationally further some legitimate state interest?  The precedent on these questions may be heavily weighted toward the school,Wood v. Strickland, 420 U.S. 308 (1975), but it still requires analysis, which is entirely missing from the 5th Circuit's opinion.  For more on these substantive due process concerns in the context of school discipline, see here



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