The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to take up an appeal on behalf of Texas parents who allege that a teacher placed their son, a 1st grader with disabilities including ADHD, in a chokehold until he foamed at the mouth.
A federal magistrate judge had concluded that the teacher’s actions, in response to the 7-year-old student pushing and hitting her, “were taken in pursuit of a legitimate pedagogical purpose” of maintaining an environment conducive to learning.
The parents sued, but two lower courts dismissed claims against the district and granted qualified immunity to the teacher, holding that a student may not bring a federal claim for excessive force because state remedies were available for any excessive corporal punishment.
In T.O. v. Fort Bend Independent School District (Case No. 21-1014), lawyers for the family had urged the justices to take up the case because federal courts of appeals were divided about when and how public school students may assert federal constitutional claims alleging excessive force by school officials.
A coalition of disability rights groups, in a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the student, urged the court to take up the case, arguing that while corporal punishment has declined in Texas and other states that permit it, “the threat of excess force at school has shifted, not disappeared.”
“Today, children with disabilities far too often suffer physical and mental abuse in school,” says the brief by Disability Rights Texas and other groups. “They are struck, restrained, and isolated in numbers far beyond other children.”
Incident unfolded in a hallway
The case involves a student identified in court papers as T.O., who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and oppositional defiant disorder. His behavioral intervention plan called for him to be removed to a quiet place when his behaviors interfered with class participation.
One day in 2017, the 1st grader was removed to the hallway to calm down, accompanied by a behavioral aide. A 4th grade teacher walked by and “decided to interfere,” as T.O.’s court papers put it. The 4th grade teacher allegedly yelled at T.O., despite the aide’s comments that the situation was under control. The student sought to re-enter his classroom, pushing past the 4th grade teacher and hitting her leg, court papers say.
That is when the teacher, who weighed 260 pounds according to court papers, grabbed the 55-pound student by the neck and threw him to the ground, holding him in the chokehold and telling him he “had hit the wrong one.”
The chokehold lasted several minutes, court papers say, until others at the school intervened. T.O. went to the school nurse and had a bruised neck. Court papers say the school district conducted multiple investigations of the incident; the 4th grade teacher was not fired or disciplined.
T.O.’s parents sued the school district under federal disabilities laws and the teacher under the Fourth Amendment’s clause against unreasonable seizures and the 14th Amendment’s due-process clause.
The magistrate judge granted qualified immunity to the teacher because state law provided a separate remedy for excessive corporal punishment, and under precedents of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in New Orleans, no federal due-process claim may be brought by a student when such a state remedy exists and the punishment was carried out for disciplinary or pedagogical purposes. The judge also dismissed claims against the school district.
A three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit court unanimously affirmed, though two judges wrote concurrences noting that the circuit precedents ran counter to other federal appeals courts, which allow federal constitutional claims in school excessive force cases.
That was the emphasis of the appeal to the Supreme Court filed by T.O. and his parents.
“The 5th Circuit stands alone in holding that public school officials who use excessive force against students are completely insulated from constitutional scrutiny, so long as there is some purportedly ‘pedagogical’ or ‘disciplinary’ purpose for the use of force, if state law provides a cause of action against the school official,” the appeal said.
The disability rights groups, in their brief, argued that “teachers who are not adequately trained in de-escalation techniques and other ways to address student behavior, or who ignore their training, have too often responded to student behavior with physical and mechanical restraints, seclusion, and even resort to physical violence.”
The Fort Bend school district and the 4th grade teacher, in a brief urging the justices not to take up the case, argued that students subject to excessive discipline have adequate remedies in state courts.
“The federal constitutional rights of students in the public school setting are often limited,” the school district and teacher’s brief added. “Where a state both prohibits and remedies the use of unreasonable force against students, student disciplinary issues should be shaped by state lawmakers and local officials, rather than the individual predilections of federal jurists.”
The Supreme Court’s denial of review is not a decision on the merits of the family’s claim.