Education

Supreme Court Declines Appeals on Corporal Punishment, Teacher Testing, and Special Education

By Mark Walsh — June 23, 2008 4 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court today declined to hear the appeal of a former high school student who filed a constitutional challenge to being paddled in a public school.

The case was one of three school cases the justices declined to hear as its 2007-08 term winds down. The court also declined to step into a long-running lawsuit challenging the impact of New York state’s teacher test on minority teachers in the New York City school system. And it refused to hear the appeal of a special education case from Wisconsin.

In the corporal-punishment appeal, Serafin v. School of Excellence in Education (Case No. 07-9760), the justices declined without comment to hear the case of Jessica Serafin, who was an 18-year-old high school senior when she alleges she was paddled by her school principal for a minor infraction of school rules--leaving the campus of her San Antonio charter school to buy breakfast.

I blogged about the case here last week.

Serafin says in court papers that when principal Brett Wilkinson sought to paddle her in June 2004, she asked to withdraw herself from the school instead. Her request was refused, and two school employees helped restrain Serafin while the principal began paddling her. After the first strike, Serafin freed one of her hands, which was struck by the paddle. The principal allegedly told her, “That hit didn’t count,” and he struck her again, according to the former student’s account. Serafin called her mother and left the school after the paddling, which left her buttocks bleeding and her hand swollen, according to court papers. She was treated at a hospital emergency room.

The school said in its court papers that when Serafin enrolled in the school, she was a minor and her guardian signed standard school forms that included one authorizing school officials to use corporal punishment. The court papers say Serafin had been paddled before, and that despite having turned 18, the student knew she was subject to the school’s discipline as long as she was enrolled. The school’s court papers also say that Serafin’s injuries were “minor and temporary,” and her hand would not have been hurt if she had not tried to block the paddle.

In her appeal to the Supreme Court, Serafin asked whether an adult student has a greater right than a child to be free from corporal punishment. Also, she asked whether the time had come for the justices to decide whether students of any age have “substantive due process” rights when a public school applies excessive corporal punishment.

The concept of substantive due process under the 14th Amendment protects against arbitrary and unreasonable governmental conduct affecting fundamental constitutional liberties. The Supreme Court left open the question of whether substantive due process rights are implicated when it last addressed the legal issues surrounding corporal punishment, in the 1977 case of Ingraham v. Wright.

That question will remain unsettled for now.

New York Teacher Testing

In Board of Education of New York City v. Gulino (No. 07-270), the justices declined without comment to hear the appeal of the nation’s largest school district in a suit over the teacher test it is required to use.

The appeal stems from a lawsuit that contends that a state teachers’ exam has a disparate impact on black and Latino test-takers in the New York City school system.

As I reported in Education Week here, a group of black and Latino teachers in New York City sued New York state and the New York City school system in 1996. The plaintiffs alleged that two tests used by the state had a racially disparate impact on African-American and Latino test-takers, and that those in the city system who failed to pass the test were demoted to substitute-teacher status, for which they were received less pay and reduced benefits.

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, in New York City, partially revived the lawsuit in a 2006 decision, ordering a federal district court to reconsider whether the New York City school system was potentially liable for the disparate impact of the state’s teacher test under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In a brief filed at the request of the court, the Bush administration said the 2nd Circuit court was incorrect in ruling that the school district may be liable under Title VII for the disparate impact of the state’s licensing test. But, the brief said, the case was a poor vehicle for deciding the issue because the 2nd Circuit opinion does not conflict with any other federal appeals courts on that issue and because there has been no final ruling from the district court.

The case now returns to U.S. District Court in Manhattan on the Title VII issue.

Special Education

In Hjortness v. Neenah Joint School District (No. 07-1178), the justices refused without comment to hear the appeal of Wisconsin parents who alleged their school district circumvented the proper procedures under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act for deciding the proper school placement of their child.

The parents’ appeal is here, and the school district’s response is here. The parents had friend-of-the-court briefs filed on their side by the Tourette Syndrome Association and the group Autism Speaks.

(Thanks to SCOTUSBlog for the briefs.)

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

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