Court Upholds School’s Use of Desk With Restraining Bar

By Mark Walsh — August 28, 2012 3 min read
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A Colorado school district’s use of a special desk with a restraining bar did not violate the federal constitutional rights of a young student with disabilities, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The court said the use of the U-shaped desk, with a wooden bar designed to keep a student from pushing back his or her chair, did not amount to an unconstitutional “seizure” under the Fourth Amendment. It also held that the exclusive use of the desks in special education classrooms did not violate the 14th Amendment equal-protection rights of students.

The three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, in Denver, said in a unanimous opinion that it was not expressing any view on whether a Colorado statute that bars schools from using any “restraint” on a student except in an emergency applies to the U-shaped desk.

The use of the restraining desk by the Pueblo school district was challenged by the mother of a young student identified in court papers as Ebonie S., who was born addicted to cocaine and suffers from multiple intellectual and developmental disabilities. Court papers say a teacher and paraprofessionals at Bessemer Academy in Pueblo used the U-shaped desk to discipline the student, who attended the school from ages 5 to 6, and keep her from disrupting the classroom.

The mother argues in her suit that a “locking” bar kept her daughter restrained in the desk, sometimes for as long as an hour. The school district contends that the bar does not lock per se, but is kept in place by a mechanism similar to that on a bathroom door. The district also said a student may climb over or under the desk to get out.

A federal district dismissed the mother’s Fourth and 14th Amendment claims, but permitted claims under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 to go to trial.

In its Aug. 28 decision in Ebonie S. v. Pueblo School District No. 60, the 10th Circuit court panel did not disturb the district court’s ruling allowing the disability claims to go to trial. And it affirmed the lower court on the federal constitutional claims.

“We conclude that the desk’s limitation on Ebonie’s movement did not significantly exceed that inherent in everyday, compulsory attendance,” the court said. While the desk restricted the girl’s movement, the position it forced her to assume—"seated in a chair faced
forward—is the standard pose required of countless schoolchildren across the nation,” it added.

It was also significant that the desk did not require the removal of the student from her classroom, and it did not truly keep her from removing herself from the desk.

The court also said it was significant that the student was not physically attached to the desk, and thus her case could be distinguished from appeals court precedents ruling that the handcuffing or taping of students to restrain them were seizures under the Fourth Amendment.

“Physically binding a student is a much more significant imposition on her dignity and bodily integrity than the use of the desk in this case,” the 10th Circuit court said.

The court noted that in a 2008 decision, the 10th Circuit had assumed without deciding that the placement of a student in a closet-sized “timeout room” was a seizure, but the use of the timeout room in that case did not violate the Fourth Amendment. In that earlier case, Couture v. Board of Education of the Albuquerque Public Schools, the 10th Circuit had noted that because children in public schools are lawfully confined to a given classroom, any seizure would have to involve a significant limitation on a student’s freedom of movement that exceeded “that inherent in everyday, compulsory attendance.”

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