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Excessive Force

COULD THE PARENT PURSUE EXCESSIVE FORCE CLAIMS AGAINST THE DISTRICT?

Case citation:  Moreno v. Gonzalez, Dkt. No. 12-CV-1058-LY (W.D. Tex. 2013) (unpublished).

Summary:  Sylvia Moreno, mother of A.P., brought suit against one of A.P.’s gym teachers and the Hays Consolidated Independent School District alleging that the teacher used excessive force in disciplining the student.  Specifically, the lawsuit claimed that the teacher forced A.P. to perform squat exercises with heavy weights for an extended period of time, causing the student injury.  The parent claimed the teacher violated Texas Education Code § 22.0511 for excessive force in disciplining A.P. and the defendants violated A.P.’s constitutional right to bodily integrity.

In response, the defendants argued that the lawsuit failed to state sufficient facts to demonstrate a violation of A.P.’s constitutional rights.  In addition, according to the district, the plaintiffs failed to exhaust administrative remedies on their excessive discipline claim brought under Education Code § 22.0511.  The district sought dismissal of the suit prior to trial.

Ruling:  The trial court dismissed each of the student’s claims.  The trial court observed that to state a claim under 42 U.S.C. §1983 for the violation of a constitutional right, the plaintiff had to allege: (1) a violation of a right secured by the constitution or laws of the United States, (2) by a person acting under the color of state law, (3) pursuant to local governmental policy or custom.  According to the trial court, the plaintiff in this case did not identify a specific local policy or custom that led to the constitutional violation.

According to the trial court, the suit also failed to show a violation of a constitutional right.  The Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause protects a student’s right to bodily integrity.  However, the court stated that, “because classroom decorum is a legitimate state goal, the Fifth Circuit held . . . that excessive school discipline does not implicate the Due Process Clause if state law provides an alternative remedy to the plaintiff.”  Texas law provides A.P. with an alternative remedy for the alleged excessive discipline.  Texas law does not shield a teacher from liability for excessive force in the discipline of students or negligence resulting in bodily injury to students.  Because state law provides A.P. with an alternative remedy, the allegations in this lawsuit do not implicate the Due Process Clause.  In addition, the suit failed to allege a district policy or custom that resulted in A.P.’s injuries, which was required to establish liability for a constitutional violation against the school district.

The trial court next held that, although the suit alleged a valid negligence claim against the gym teacher, the mother had not exhausted administrative remedies on that claim.  The suit alleged that the teacher required the student to perform squats with a 35-pound weight as discipline, knowing that squatting with a 35-pound weight was unsafe.  The suit alleged that A.P. suffered injury as a result.  These allegations were sufficient to state a negligence claim against the teacher individually.  However, under Texas law, a plaintiff may not bring a lawsuit against a schoolteacher unless the person has exhausted remedies provided by the district.  It was undisputed that the mother had not exhausted administrative remedies.  According to the court, when a plaintiff fails to exhaust administrative remedies, courts will dismiss a cause of action “without prejudice,” meaning that the party may bring the claims again after exhausting administrative remedies.  Thus, the court entered judgment in favor of the district on the constitutional claims brought under § 1983, and dismissed the negligence claims “without prejudice.”

Things to Remember:  District attorneys enjoy “absolute immunity” (see Washington v. Burley, above), while teachers have “qualified” immunity.  As this case illustrates, teachers are not immune when a student is physically injured due to excessive or negligent use of force in the process of disciplining the student.

DID THE SCHOOL’S “RED RIBBON DAY” ACTIVITIES VIOLATE THE STUDENT’S CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS?

Case citation:  Yara v. Perryton ISD, Dkt. No. 2-12-CV-117-J (N.D. Tex. 2013) (unpublished).

Summary:  Andrew Yara was a student in the Perryton Independent School District who was injured while participating in “Red Ribbon Day,” a Nazi-Jew simulation at Perryton High School.  The high school principal approved the lesson plans associated with the activity and the lesson was supervised by the teacher of a sophomore World History class.  The lesson involved a two-day activity, in which half of the students wore a red ribbon on the first day and the rest wore the ribbon the next day.  While wearing a red ribbon, students were expected to “realize what it feels like to be persecuted,” by being shunned and complying with orders of school employees and other students.  Students wearing red ribbons were told to do whatever anyone asked of them.

During the second day of the activity, Yara wore a red ribbon.  After lunch, a staff member told Yara and others wearing ribbons to kneel in the hall, facing the wall, with their hands behind them.  Then Yara’s cousin, who was a senior and heavier than Yara, told Yara to carry him to class.  While doing so, another student jumped on them, causing all three to fall.  When Yara got up, the cousin jumped onto his back again.  Yara ultimately carried his cousin and two other students to class.  As a result, Yara allegedly suffered injuries, including back pain, seizures, and depression, among other things.  Yara and his parents filed suit against the district under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming that the district violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from excessive force and his Fourteenth Amendment due process right to bodily integrity.  In response, the district sought judgment in its favor prior to trial

Ruling:  The trial court entered judgment in favor of the district on each of Yara’s claims.  The trial court observed that § 1983 provides for liability against school districts when injury results from an official policy, custom or practice.  The Yaras alleged that the principal approved Red Ribbon Day and, thus, the activity became a school district policy or custom.  They also claimed that the district failed to train or supervise the employees in such a way that would have prevented the student’s injuries.

The trial court rejected each of the plaintiffs’ claims.  According to the trial court, Yara had to provide proof of a policymaker, an official policy, and a violation of constitutional rights whose “moving force” was the policy or custom.  Further, the policymaker must be deliberately indifferent to a known or obvious fact that the policy would cause a constitutional violation.  Here, the school board, not the school principal, was the district’s final policymaker.  A teacher’s lesson plans or proposed activities do not become district policy when a principal approves them.

The Yaras failed to show that a policy by the board of trustees, the district’s final policymaker, was the moving force behind his injuries or that the board acted with deliberate indifference. There was no evidence to show that the board knew of Red Ribbon Day.  The activity was assigned for two days a year, by one teacher, at a single school.  It was not a persistent, widespread practice that would make it a school district policy.  Further, the Yaras offered no evidence that constitutional violations occurred during prior years, or that the board became aware of a pattern of violations or any dangerous activity associated with the activity.

The Yaras’ “failure to train” claim also failed.  To establish such a claim under § 1983, a plaintiff must show that (1) the supervisor failed to supervise or train the subordinate official, (2) a causal link existed between the failure to train or supervise and the violation of the plaintiff’s rights, and (3) the failure to train or supervise amounted to deliberate indifference.  The Yaras failed to meet their burden of proof.  They failed to show that the board acted with deliberate indifference to known constitutional violations due to the alleged lack of training or supervision.  As a result, the trial court entered judgment in favor of the district.

Things to Remember:  This is a good illustration of how the courts apply liability standards to school districts under federal law. The law that formed the basis of this suit—42 U.S.C. Section 1983—is the one most frequently cited in federal cases against school districts.