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Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals Issues Interesting School Discipline Decision

This post is not specifically related to special education, but it involves an elementary student being placed in handcuffs, so I thought it might be of interest to some readers. The decision, captioned E.W. v. Dolgos, No. 16-1608 (4th Cir. Feb. 12, 2018), is from the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

The student, E.W., got into a scuffle with another elementary school student on their way to school. E.W. is ten years old, 4’4” tall, and 95 pounds. Three days after the incident, the school contacted a deputy sheriff and school safety officer to come to the school and speak to the students about the incident. The safety officer met with E.W. along with two other school employees. After E.W. showed disinterest in speaking with the school safety officer, the safety officer placed E.W. in handcuffs. The school officer eventually removed the handcuffs after E.W. started crying and told E.W.’s parents that she would refer the matter to the county juvenile system.

E.W. and her parents brought an action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for unreasonable seizure and excessive force. For those unfamiliar with “1983 actions,” 42 U.S.C. § 1983 is a federal law that permits individuals to sue state actors such as law enforcement officers for the deprivation of constitutional rights.

In her defense, the school safety officer argued that she was justified in using handcuffs because she had probable cause to arrest E.W. for assault. The safety officer also argued that handcuffing was necessary for the safety of the other adults in the room.

The court, however, sided with the parents and held that it was objectively unreasonable for the school safety officer to arrest “a calm, compliant ten-year-old being handcuffed on school grounds because she hit another student during a fight several days prior.” In particular, the court found that E.W.’s size compared to the school safety officer and other two administrators in the room, the amount of time between the arrest and the incident, E.W.’s calm demeanor throughout the arrest, and E.W.’s lack of significant behavioral history all weighed against handcuffing the student. The court stated that only “exceptional circumstances” could justify handcuffing a ten-year-old in school. Handcuffs in school, the court noted, “may undermine students’ perception of the school and their willingness to attend, thereby disrupting their education far beyond the time they actually spend in handcuffs.”

In the end, due to a legal doctrine called qualified immunity, the court dismissed the claim because it was not “clearly established” in the law that the officer’s conduct constituted unreasonable force. The court, however, warned that it is now “ clearly established for any future qualified immunity case involving similar circumstances” (you know, because it’s safe to assume that school safety officers read the Fourth Circuit’s opinions). Thus, if a school officer were to engage in similar conduct in the future, he or she would not be protected by the qualified immunity doctrine.

The end result of this case is unfortunate, but it's definitely a helpful case for understanding how the law applies when school officials cross the line with respect to student discipline.