Friday, April 4, 2014

Emotional and Physical Harms Through the Lens of Substantive Due Process by Emily Frances Suski

On Tuesday, Derek posted about the recent 5th Circuit case Clayton ex rel. Hamilton v. Tate County School Dist., 2014 WL 1202515 (5th Cir. 2014), in which the Court found that a student subjected to corporal punishment did not have a substantive due process claim under the Constitution. Although in general the other Circuits that have heard students’ substantive due process claims have not distinguished between those claims that are based on corporal punishment and those that are not, the 5th Circuit is the outlier in this respect. To wit, in Jefferson v. Ysleta Indep. Sch. Dist., 817 F.2d 303 (5th Cir. 1987), the Court heard the claim of a second grade student who was tied to a chair for a day and a half at school for no apparent reason. The 5th Circuit found the claim could go forward because the alleged emotional and physical harm to the student was not the result of corporal punishment.

The Court decided the case on qualified immunity grounds. In doing so, it had to decide whether a state official has violated a clearly established right “known or knowable by a reasonable person.” Concluding the student’s substantive due process right was clearly established, the Court said “[w]e are persuaded that in January 1985, a competent teacher knew or should have known that to tie a second-grade student to a chair for an entire school day and for a substantial portion of a second day, as an educational exercise, with no suggested justification, such as punishment or discipline, was constitutionally impermissible. A young student who is not being properly punished or disciplined has a constitutional right not to be lashed to a chair through the school day and denied, among other things, the basic liberty of access to the bathroom when needed.” So, the 5th Circuit will recognize a student’s substantive due process claim based on abuse by school personnel, just like all the other Circuits to have taken up the issue. But unlike the rest, in the 5th Circuit the student’s harm can’t be the result of corporal punishment. For more on this and related issues see my forthcoming article Dark Sarcasm in the Classroom: The Failure of the Courts to Recognize Students’ Severe Emotional Harm as Unconstitutional, 62 Clev. St. L. Rev. – (2014).

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