Court Upholds Use of ‘Timeout Room’ at Oklahoma School

By Nirvi Shah — April 23, 2013 3 min read
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Guest post by Mark Walsh. Cross-posted from The School Law Blog.

A school district’s use of a “timeout room” to briefly restrain an elementary school student with developmental disabilities did not “shock the conscience” and thus did not violate the student’s constitutional rights, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The decision stems from a suit filed by an Oklahoma couple, Paul and Melinda Muskrat, on behalf of their son, identified in court papers as J.M., who was a special education student at Deer Creek Elementary School in Edmond, Okla. J.M. would sometimes yell, spit, kick, and display other disruptive behaviors in his classroom.

On an unspecified number of occasions, J.M.'s teachers would place him in the small “timeout room,” which was an enclosure large enough for a student and teacher to fit, with a light, a window, and an unlocked door, court papers say. The longest the student was placed in the timeout room on any one occasion was four minutes, the court papers say.

J.M. was between 5 and 10 years old when the timeout room was used, and at some point his parents requested that he not be placed in the enclosure. His individualized education program was amended to prohibit placing him in the timeout room, but the parents’ suit contends school officials continued to do so.

In one incident, the school principal had forced J.M. into the timeout room against his will, the suit said. J.M. “yelled, screamed, cried, and held onto the door jamb to resist being forced into the timeout room,” the family’s lawsuit said. The principal “closed the door and placed a chair in front of the door with J.M. yelling to let him out. [The principal] told the staff to continue to teach the class over the yelling and screaming.”

The school district stopped using its timeout rooms beginning with the 2006-07 school year, though J.M. was placed in a classroom with a “decommissioned” room that added to his anxiety, the parents’ suit said.

The parents sued under the 14th Amendment’s due-process clause, arguing that the placement of their son in a timeout room was an abuse of government power that “shocks the conscience” under U.S. Supreme Court precedents.

In its April 23 decision in Muskrat v. Deer Creek Public Schools, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, in Denver, unanimously rejected the parents’ suit.

Analyzing (and taking as true) the incident in which the principal forced J.M. into the timeout room, the appeals court said “this does not describe a conscience-shocking event.”

“While we understand emotions can run high in maintaining classroom order, at the time of this incident the Muskrats had not yet made [the principal] aware of the medical consequences that they now attribute to J.M.'s timeouts. Thus, although J.M. obviously did not want to be placed in the timeout room, this single incident lasting four minutes does not shock the conscience. The various details, such as placing a chair in front of the door, show at most a careless or unwise excess of zeal rather than a brutal and inhumane abuse of official power,” the court said.

The court further held that because it found no constitutional violation, the school district could not be held liable on the theory that it had an official policy or custom of permitting civil rights violations.

The court also held that the parents did not properly raise a claim that the use of the timeout room was a “seizure” that violated the Fourth Amendment. The parents did argue that under Fourth Amendment rulings applying to the schools, the actions of school officials would be analyzed under a “reasonableness” standard rather than a more difficult (for the parents to prove) “shocks-the-conscience” standard.

“We decline the Muskrats’ invitation to consider whether we should abrogate our shocks-the-conscience standard in favor of a reasonableness standard in school discipline cases,” the 10th Circuit court said.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.