A federal appeals court has granted qualified immunity to a school resource officer who escorted a 16-year-old high school student to a school office to be questioned by two city police officers who were investigating an off-campus sexual assault.
The ruling by a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, in St. Louis, reverses a federal district judge who had ruled that the SRO had conducted an unreasonable seizure of the student in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
The SRO’s “involvement in the alleged seizure was relatively minimal and ministerial,” the unanimous 8th Circuit panel said in its March 18 decision in L.G. v. Columbia Public Schools.
The case stems from a day in May 2019 at Rock Bridge High School in Columbia, Mo., when city police officers were investigating an alleged sexual assault of a female student at a house. They asked to question the student identified as L.G. because they believed she may have had information about the alleged crime, court papers say.
L.G. is described in court papers as a straight-A student who suffers from anxiety disorder and other conditions. She was taking a final exam in her geometry class when she was summoned to the school office, though her teacher had her finish the exam first.
When L.G. reported to the office, SRO Keisha Edwards escorted the student to another office where the city police officers were waiting. Edwards shut the door and left the student with the city police officers, who did not have a warrant to question L.G. They asked her about the alleged off-campus assault, but L.G. told them she was not aware of it.
The questioning took 10 to 20 minutes, during which L.G. did not feel free to leave. She became distraught, and she called her mother right after, court papers say. L.G. suffered longer-term anxiety and her schoolwork suffered following the incident, her suit says.
The family sued Edwards, the school principal, the school district, the city, and the two city police officers. In a ruling last year, the federal district judge dismissed some claims and allowed others to proceed.
The judge declined qualified immunity to the SRO, ruling that Edwards had unconstitutionally seized L.G. by calling her out of class, escorting her to the room with the city officers, and closing the door. The district judge further held that the right of a student not to be seized in school without a warrant had been clearly established by 8th Circuit precedent.
Edwards appealed her denial of qualified immunity, and the 8th Circuit court panel took a different view than the district judge.
“Edwards merely escorted L.G. to a room and closed a door,” the appeals court said. The student’s suit “does not allege that Edwards positioned herself to limit L.G.’s movements, displayed a weapon, touched L.G., used language or tone indicating compliance was necessary, or retained L.G.'s property,” the panel added.
The 8th Circuit court also suggested that while constitutional protections against a seizure without probable cause generally apply to students as well as to others, the school setting presents some unique considerations.
“Even though students have some Fourth Amendment protection, an officer in Edwards’s situation would not know, without more guidance, whether her escorting L.G. to a room with other officers and closing a door constitutes a seizure,” the court said. “[T]he answers to Fourth Amendment questions in cases like these are not so obvious as to put an officer in Edwards’s situation on notice that her actions would violate L.G.'s constitutional rights.”
The 8th Circuit opinion dealt only with the SRO’s appeal of the denial of qualified immunity. With the reversal, the SRO cannot be held personally liable for any violations of L.G.'s rights stemming from the incident.
When it comes to the two city police officers and the other defendants, it appears that the district court’s May 12, 2020, opinion denied L.G.’s claim for an injunction barring Columbia police officers from interrogating students in school without a warrant or probable cause or outside presence of a parent or guardian.