A federal appeals court has ruled that a police officer did not violate the constitutional rights of a 2nd grader when he handcuffed the student for 20 minutes when the boy resisted being led to the school office.
The three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, in St. Louis, ruled unanimously that the officer had qualified immunity protecting him from the boy’s claim of unlawful seizure and excessive force. The court also held that the principal of the Kansas City, Mo., elementary school was immune to the boy’s claim that a separate violation occurred when the principal failed to order the officer to remove the handcuffs.
The appeals panel considered several rulings in recent years by other federal appeals courts that found the use of handcuffs on compliant students a violation of the Fourth Amendment. But it said the case of the 7-year-old student identified in court papers as K.W.P. was different because of the student’s resistance to the police officer and his record of another recent disciplinary incident.
The case stems from a 2014 incident at George Melcher Elementary School in Kansas City, when K.W.P. says in court papers he was being teased by a classmate and he reacted with frustration. K.W.P. refused to sit down when his teacher told him to do so. Another school employee approached Kansas City police officer Brandon Craddock and told him he was needed in the classroom to assist with an “out of control” student. It is not clear whether Craddock was the school resource officer.
Court papers say the officer took K.W.P. into the hallway, informed him he was not in trouble, but that he needed to come with the officer to the school office. K.W.P.'s own testimony in a deposition acknowledged that he resisted the officer, including that he was “aggressively trying to pull away.”
Craddock handcuffed the 2nd grader behind his back and brought him to the office, where K.W.P. sat calmly for 15 minutes with the handcuffs on. Principal Anne Wallace, who had disciplined K.W.P. for acting out about two months earlier, did not ask the officer to remove the handcuffs until the boy’s father arrived.
K.W.P., through his father, sued the officer, the principal, and the school district over the incident. A federal district court denied the defendants’ summary judgment motions, citing disputed facts.
In its Aug. 1 decision in K.W.P. v. Kansas City Public Schools, the 8th Circuit panel ruled that there was no constitutional violation in the boy’s treatment. The panel discussed several recent appeals court decisions involving the handcuffing of students.
In a 2013 decision in a case known as Gray v. Bostic, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11 Circuit, in Atlanta, held “that a law enforcement officer, acting as a school resource officer, who handcuffs a compliant nine-year-old child for purely punitive purposes has unreasonably seized the child in violation of the Fourth Amendment.”
In 2014, in C.B. v. City of Sonora, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, ruled that police officers’ use of handcuffs on a calm, compliant, but nonresponsive 11-year-old student for 25 to 30 minutes was unreasonable.
And in 2018, in E.W. v. Dolgos, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, Va., held that a school resource officer’s decision to handcuff “a calm, compliant 10-year-old” child for fighting with another student three days earlier was objectively unreasonable and violated the student’s right to be free from excessive force.
In the new decision, the 8th Circuit court distinguished K.W.P.'s handcuffing from the earlier cases.
“As to the initial handcuffing, unlike the calm, compliant children in Gray, E.W., and C.B. who did not engage in further disruptive behavior and posed no risks to anyone’s safety, K.W.P.'s own admissions indicate that he attempted to flee from Officer Craddock upon his removal from the classroom and that his escape efforts posed a safety risk to himself,” the decision said.
As for keeping the student in handcuffs in the school office, the court said “a reasonable officer could conclude that, based on K.W.P.'s recent resistance, keeping him in handcuffs for 15 minutes until a parent arrived was a reasonable course of action and was necessary to prevent K.W.P. from trying to leave and posing harm to himself.”
Furthermore, the principal’s failure to intervene and have the officer remove the handcuffs was reasonable in light of her previous disciplinary experience with K.W.P., the court said.
The appeals court ordered that summary judgment be entered in favor of the defendants on all of K.W.P’s claims.
A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.