Appeals Court Rejects Latest Challenge to Corporal Punishment

By Mark Walsh — March 27, 2014 3 min read
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A federal appeals court has rejected the lawsuit of a Mississippi 8th grader whose misbehavior led to a paddling by a school administrator. The student then fainted and fell face-first to the floor, breaking his jaw and five of his teeth, court papers say.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in New Orleans, was unmoved by the student’s lawsuit. It ruled unanimously that it was bound by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1977 decision in Ingraham v. Wright, which upheld the constitutionality of corporal punishment in schools.

The case involves Trey Clayton, a student at Independence High School in the Tate County, Miss., school district. (The school evidently includes 8th grade.)

The 5th Circuit’s recitation of the facts is not very detailed about why Clayton was subject to paddling. It says the student was sent to the library by his classroom teacher for not being in his seat. In the library, Assistant Principal Jerome Martin noticed Clayton and told him his bad behavior was going to stop, court papers say. He then took Clayton to the office and paddled him three times. That’s when the student fainted and suffered the jaw and teeth injuries. Also, the paddling left bruises and welts on Clayton’s buttocks, his suit said.

Clayton and his mother sued Martin and the school district under the Eighth Amendment, which bars cruel and unusual punishments, and under the 14th Amendment’s due-process clause.

A federal district court rejected the claims, and in a March 25 unpublished decision in Clayton v. Tate County School District, the 5th Circuit court affirmed.

The court held that it was an open-and-shut case because the Supreme Court, in Ingraham, had rejected an Eight Amendment challenge to corporal punishment in schools. The appeals court rejected Clayton’s suggestion that there was language in the 1977 decision that would allow lower courts to revisit the issue if the nation’s attitude on corporal punishment changed.

“To the extent that Ingraham left open an escape hatch, it is available for the Supreme Court, and not this court, to use,” the 5th Circuit panel said.

As for the 14th Amendment due-process claim, the appellate panel said Ingraham held that due process was satisfied as long as there are state law remedies for plaintiffs to pursue after the fact in the case of excessive corporal punishment.

The panel said 5th Circuit precedent “has specifically held that post-deprivation state-law remedies available in Mississippi provide an adequate remedy, barring a student subject to corporal punishment from asserting a substantive due-process claim.”

The court did take notice of a recent article in the Georgetown Law Review (a law student’s “note,” actually) calling for the end of corporal punishment, but only for the note’s description of how corporal punishment claims have been handled by various federal appeals courts.

The law journal note, “Protecting Children’s Rights Inside of the Schoolhouse Gates: Ending Corporal Punishment in Schools,” by Nicole Mortorano, a 2013 graduate of Georgetown law school, notes that 19 states permit corporal punishment in some form in schools.

“Even though most circuits allow litigants to raise 14th Amendment claims, this litigation is rarely successful,” she writes. “Educators’ use of physical punishment—particularly paddling—is rarely held to violate students’ substantive due-process rights.”

Most circuits have adopted a legal standard that would allow only the most egregious cases of corporal punishment to be remedied, Mortorano writes. She calls for litigation that would lead to the Supreme Court overturning Ingraham, and legislation in Congress that would ban corporal punishment nationwide.

“Corporal punishment in schools assaults our nation’s commitment to guaranteeing human rights and protecting vulnerable populations,” Mortorano writes.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.