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The Supreme Court and Corporal Punishment

By Mark Walsh — June 17, 2008 3 min read
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Four years ago on Wednesday, Jessica Serafin was paddled by her San Antonio charter school principal for breaking a school rule.

Serafin was just a few days past her 18th birthday, making her an adult, and she says in court papers she did not consent to being struck three times by a wooden paddle called “Ole Thunder” after she went off campus to buy breakfast. She sued the school, but has lost so far.

Corporal punishment in schools remains legal in 22 states, according to court papers filed on behalf of the charter school, the School of Excellence in Education.

On Thursday, in a private conference, the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether to revisit the legal issues surrounding corporal punishment in schools for the first time in more than 30 years. The court could announce as soon as June 23 whether it will hear the former student’s appeal in Serafin v. School of Excellence in Education (Case No. 07-9760).

The case hasn’t attracted much notice, partly because it is on the Supreme Court’s pauper’s docket.

Serafin says in court papers that when principal Brett Wilkinson sought to paddle her on that day 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 filed a response to Serafin’s appeal only after the Supreme Court requested one, which is a sign that at least one of the justices is looking at the appeal with interest.

The school points out in its 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.

Serafin’s lawsuit cited several state and federal claims, including assault and battery, negligence, false imprisonment, and violations of her 14th Amendment rights to due process and equal protection of the law. A U.S. district court dismissed her federal claims. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in New Orleans, ruled against Serafin in October 2007.

In a unanimous decision by the three-judge panel, the appeals court said it was well settled in the 5th Circuit that “corporal punishment of public school students is only a deprivation of substantive due process rights when it is arbitrary, capricious, or wholly unrelated to the legitimate state goal of maintaining an atmosphere conducive to learning.”

In her appeal to the Supreme Court, Serafin presents two questions. First, she asks whether an adult student has a greater right than a child to be free from corporal punishment. And second, she asks if the time 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 appeal does not question the overall legality of corporal punishment in schools, but it contends that students should have stronger protection of the type known as substantive due process, which protects against arbitrary and unreasonable governmental conduct affecting fundamental constitutional liberties.

In its 1977 ruling in Ingraham v. Wright, the Supreme Court held 5-4 that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments did not apply to corporal punishment in schools, and that the 14th Amendment’s due-process clause did not require notice and a hearing before imposing such punishment. The court said state common-law remedies satisfied the procedural due-process requirement, and it declined to consider substantive due-process concerns over corporal punishment.

“We are reviewing here a legislative judgment, rooted in history and reaffirmed in the laws of many States, that corporal punishment serves important educational interests,” the late Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. said for the majority in Ingraham.

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