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Use of Force

 

DID THE STUDENT’S LAWSUIT STATE SUFFICIENT FACTS AGAINST THE DISTRICT FOR ALLEGED EXCESSIVE USE OF FORCE?

Case citation:  Henderson v. Killeen ISD, Dkt. No. A-13- CV-471-LY and 2014 WL 6628630 (W.D. Tex. January 7, 2014) (unpublished).

Summary: Alaina Henderson, a former high school student at Ellison High School, sued Killeen Independent School District and Jacqueline Lundy, in her individual and official capacities as a police officer for the district.  Henderson alleged that Lundy used excessive force on her in violation of rights under the United States Constitution on two separate occasions. Specifically, on September 13, 2011, Henderson claimed that after she finished cheerleader practice, she attempted to re-enter a school building where she was greeted by Lundy who refused to let her back in to the school because Henderson did not have her school ID with her. Henderson alleged that before she could retrieve her bag (with her school ID in it), Lundy “physically grabbed and assaulted Plaintiff” and then shoved her through heavy school doors. Henderson claimed to have been injured and bruised as a result of this alleged use of force. Due to the incident, Henderson was suspended from school.

On December 7, 2012, Henderson claimed that Lundy used excessive force against her again, this time when Lundy attempted to break up a fight between some students. During the incident, Henderson alleged that Lundy “attacked and grabbed Plaintiff from behind by the hood attached to Plaintiff’s sweatshirt,” causing her to choke. Henderson further alleged that Lundy then confiscated her school ID and threatened to arrest her. Henderson was again suspended from school.

Based on these allegations, Henderson’s lawsuit alleged excessive force and state law claims for assault and battery against Lundy, in her official and individual capacities, as well as the district based on Lundy’s conduct.  The school district requested dismissal of the suit, arguing that it stated insufficient facts to state a claim against the school district for the violation of Henderson’s constitutional rights.

Ruling:  The trial court dismissed the student’s lawsuit against the school district.   This suit was brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for alleged violations of the student’s due process right to bodily integrity stemming from alleged excessive force by Lundy.  A school district can only be liable under § 1983 if conduct by the school district subjects a person to a constitutional deprivation.  A person seeking to impose liability on a school district under § 1983 must prove that an official policy caused their injury.  Policies include decisions of the district, the acts of its policymaking officials, and practices, so persistent and widespread as to practically have the force of law.

The district argued that the Court should dismiss Henderson’s suit against it because Henderson failed to show that the district: (1) enacted an unconstitutional policy; (2) allowed a custom to develop through a continuous series of unconstitutional violations; or (3) failed to train its employees to the extent that such a failure constituted a deliberate indifference towards the constitutional rights of its students. In response, Henderson argued that the district ignored or failed to respond adequately to a sufficient number of incidents to support a finding that the district authorized Lundy’s conduct.

A plaintiff may prove the existence of a custom or policy by showing a pattern of unconstitutional conduct on the part of municipal actors or employees.  Numerous prior incidents of similar misconduct can constitute evidence of a custom of the district.  Isolated incidents, on the other hand, are inadequate to prove knowledge and acquiescence by policymakers.   In this case, Henderson failed to allege sufficient facts to demonstrate a pattern of similar violations.  Thus, the lawsuit failed to state a valid claim against the school district under § 1983 stemming from a policy, custom, or practice of excessive force against students.  The district was entitled to dismissal from the student’s suit.