A federal appeals court has rejected civil rights claims and upheld qualified immunity for a school resource officer who used a stun gun on a Texas high school student with an intellectual disability who was having a violent outburst.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in New Orleans, called the case “disturbing” and said the officer showed “poor judgment” in using the stun gun on the 17-year-old student. But the three-judge panel unanimously held that the officer did not discriminate against the student based on his disability. And it rejected the family’s arguments that the use of a stun gun to keep the student from leaving the school building amounted to excessive punishment that violated his 14th Amendment right to due process of law.
The officer “was not necessarily punishing [the student] but trying to restrain him for the pedagogical purpose of maintaining order,” the court said in its Aug. 28 decision in J.W. v. Paley. “The tasing incident was not a random, malicious, and unprovoked attack.”
Trying to keep a student in crisis from leaving school
The case stems from a November 2016 incident at Mayde Creek High School in the Katy, Texas, school district. The student, Jevon Washington, had an unspecified intellectual disability and “emotional disturbance,” court papers say.
Washington had an argument with a fellow student, punching him before storming out of a classroom. He entered a room where he normally would go to “chill out,” but with another student already there, Washington’s emotional reaction escalated. He threw a desk, kicked a door, and yelled as he headed toward a school exit door.
School resource officer Elvin Paley and three school staff members stopped Washington, who was 6 feet, 2 inches tall and weighed 250 pounds. Washington paced in front of the exit door, explaining that he wanted to walk home to calm down. A school security guard blocked the door. Washington tried to push past the security guard, and he eventually squeezed out the door.
Paley intervened at this point, firing his stun gun at Washington, according to court documents. The student screamed and fell to his knees, and the officer continued pressing the device against the student’s body. Washington was briefly handcuffed before being treated by paramedics.
Washington’s mother kept him home from school for several months and said he suffered from anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. The student and his mother filed an administrative petition against the school district under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, raising claims of disability discrimination as well as civil rights claims under the Fourth Amendment for excessive force and the 14th Amendment for a violation of due process of law.
The IDEA hearing officer dismissed all the claims, so the family sued the district and the resource officer in federal district court.
A federal district judge dismissed all claims against the school district, holding that Washington had failed to exhaust administrative procedures under IDEA for his disability discrimination claims. The judge also dismissed the other civil rights claims against the district and all but one civil rights claim against the resource officer. The court rejected qualified immunity for Paley on the Fourth Amendment excessive-force claim.
However, Paley appealed that denial of immunity in 2021, and in a decision that year, a 5th Circuit panel reversed the district court and held the officer immune from the lawsuit. There was no “clearly established Fourth Amendment right against school officials’ use of excessive force,” the court said in that ruling.
‘Poor judgment’ but not discrimination, court says
Meanwhile, the student appealed the district court’s ruling dismissing his other claims, and the 5th Circuit panel addressed those in its Aug. 30 decision.
Washington scored a minor but ultimately unhelpful ruling when the 5th Circuit panel said that the district court was wrong to require him to exhaust IDEA procedures on his disability claims. The panel said the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in March in Luna Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools had made clear that when a plaintiff was seeking relief not available under IDEA, such as monetary damages, he did not have to exhaust administrative procedures under the special education law.
But the panel agreed with the district judge that Washington’s disability claims failed on the merits because there was no intentional discrimination alleged.
“While Officer Paley may have used poor judgment when he tased Jevon, plaintiffs have failed to create a genuine dispute on the issue of whether Officer Paley intentionally discriminated against Jevon by reason of his disability,” the 5th Circuit court said.
Separately, the court held that Washington could not proceed with his 14th Amendment claim that his restraint by the school resource officer violated his right to substantive due process of law, which provides protection for fundamental rights beyond mere procedural due process.
The court said it was bound by a 1990 5th Circuit decision, Fee v. Herndon, which held that “as long as the state provides an adequate remedy, a public school student cannot state a claim for denial of substantive due process through excessive corporal punishment.”
Texas provides various civil and criminal remedies for excessive use of force by school personnel, the court noted.
The panel did not accept the plaintiffs’ argument that the use of the stun gun did not qualify as corporal punishment because the resource officer was not trying to punish or discipline Washington for an infraction.
The court noted the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1977 decision in Ingraham v. Wright, when it ruled that corporal punishment in schools did not violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The high court defined corporal punishment in that decision as the use of “reasonable but not excessive force to discipline a child” that a teacher or administrator “reasonably believes to be necessary for the (child’s) proper control, training, or education.”
The panel said the 5th Circuit had applied its Fee precedent in cases where, “although the offending conduct may not have been traditional ‘punishment,’ it was intended to assert order or control over a student for a legitimate pedagogical purpose.”
The case before them “involves disruptive behavior from Jevon and a struggle to keep him from going through a door,” the 5th Circuit panel said. “Officer Paley was not necessarily ‘punishing’ Jevon but trying to restrain him for the pedagogical purpose of maintaining order.”
While the force Paley applied “may have been excessive, the purpose of such force was rationally related to legitimate school interests in maintaining order,” the court said.
“Parents deserve to believe that their children, no matter their unique needs, are safe at school. We are sympathetic to what Ms. Washington and Jevon have endured,” the court concluded. “However, controlling precedent provides no remedy for the claims they bring.”