School’s Heavy Use of ‘Timeouts’ Did Not Violate Student’s Rights, Court Rules

By Mark Walsh — August 08, 2008 1 min read
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A school’s frequent placement of a disruptive special education student in a small room for “timeout” did not violate his constitutional rights, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The mother of a 1st grader in the Albuquerque, N.M., school district claimed in a lawsuit that placing her son in a small, dimly lighted room for five minutes or more at a time violated his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable seizure and his 14th Amendment right of due process of law.

A federal district judge agreed, ruling that a teacher violated the boy’s clearly established rights by placing him in the “closet-like” timeout room without following proper procedures. The judge denied qualified immunity to the teacher and allowed the suit against the school district to proceed.

In its opinion in Couture v. Board of Education of the Albuquerque Public Schools, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, in Denver, unanimously reversed the district judge and held that the timeouts did not violate the boy’s rights.

The court noted that teachers reported that the boy, who was in special education because of an emotional disturbance, was highly disruptive. He sometimes threatened to kill other children and once threatened to throw hot oil on one of his teachers, court papers say.

Supervised timeouts were authorized in the student’s individualized education plan as a technique to help calm the boy down, the court noted.

On the lawsuit’s Fourth Amendment claim, the court assumed without deciding that the timeouts constituted seizures, but it held that they were reasonable.

The boy’s “emotional problems posed an extremely difficult challenge,” the court said. “We refuse to say that given this situation, these diligent and well-trained teachers acted unreasonably in continuing to use timeouts, as prescribed by [his] IEP.”

The court also rejected a 14th Amendment procedural due-process claim, holding that the frequent timeouts were not the same as suspensions or expulsions from school.

“Timeouts, unlike suspensions or expulsions, are intended to settle down a child while keeping him within close proximity to the classroom; this way, he can resume his education as soon as he has calmed,” the court said.

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