Friday Roundup: Football Coach Immunity, Confederate Flags, and Moment of Silence

By Mark Walsh — January 23, 2009 2 min read
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After a long, busy weekend of inauguration events, bookended by Supreme Court news in education cases both last Friday (see my post here) and on Wednesday (see posts here, here, and here), there is still more school law news.

Immunity in Football-Practice Death: A federal appeals court ruled today that three high school football coaches had qualified immunity from a lawsuit brought over the death of a player the morning after a workout session.

The lawsuit alleges that at a voluntary workout session for the football team Rockdale County High School in Georgia in February 2007, three football coaches failed to provide enough water to keep team member Tyler Davis hydrated, and that they subjected him to rigorous conditioning drills and failed to properly attend to him even though the student collapsed during the drills.

Davis went home, but died in the early morning hours of the next day. His family sued the Rockdale County school district and various officials, including the three coaches, on the grounds that the defendants violated Davis’s substantive-due-process rights under the 14th Amendment.

A federal district dismissed the suit against the district and some officials, but it denied qualified immunity to the three coaches.

In its Jan. 23 opinion in Davis v. Carter, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta, ruled unanimously that the coaches were entitled to immunity.

“In this school setting case, the complaint’s allegations of deliberate indifference, without more, do not rise to the conscience-shocking level required for a constitutional violation,” the court said. “While the circumstances of this case are truly unfortunate, plaintiffs’ claims are properly confined to the realm of torts.”

Confederate Flag Appeal: The full U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, today declined to grant a rehearing of a panel’s decision that upheld a Tennessee school district’s prohibition against displaying the Confederate battle flag.

A three-judge panel ruled unanimously in August in Barr v. LaFon that the Blount County, Tenn., school district did not violate the First Amendment free speech rights of students when it barred the flags because it feared such displays would spark racial disruptions. I blogged about that decision here.

Today, in a lone dissent to the full 6th Circuit’s refusal to rehear the case, Chief Judge Danny J. Boggs said the court majority “rather uncritically accepts the school administrators’ point of view” and that a reasonable jury could conclude that “the administrators’ explanation was not based on a reasonable forecast of disruption” but on “a desire to avoid political and public controversy"$#151;an impermissible basis for restricting speech.

Illinois Moment of Silence: A federal district judge has struck down an Illinois law requiring a moment of silence in public schools as a violation of the First Amendments prohibition against government establishment of religion.

Tthe 2007 law says there “shall be an opportunity for silent prayer or for silent reflection on the anticipated activities of the day.”

“The plain language of the statute ... suggests an intent to force the introduction of the concept of prayer into the schools,” said U.S. District Judge Robert W. Gettleman of Chicago said in his opinion in Sherman v. Township High School District 214.

The Associated Press reports here.

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