Thursday, January 12, 2012

No Liability for Teachers? Think Again.

Every so often, a teacher or administrator claims that he or she has no personal liability for acts performed in the course of his or her job. Not so, said the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in a 2011 case that involved a public teacher who singled out a student with a disability for mistreatment. Mathers v. Wright, 636 F.3d 396, 397-398 (8th Cir. Mo. 2011).

The child, J.S.J., was a fifth grade student with disabilities. The Eighth Circuit accepted as true, for the purposes of the ruling, the allegations by J.S.J.’s mother, who said that her daughter’s classroom teacher had singled J.S.J. out for mistreatment on the basis of her disability, and that the mistreatment continued throughout the school year. Specifically, she claimed that the teacher (1) refused to teach J.S.J., and allowed her to play instead; (2) kept J.S.J. in from recesses and mandatory fire drills and assigned a classmate to watch her while the rest of the class had recess; and (3) forced J.S.J. to crawl on the floor.

In reviewing the matter, the Eighth Circuit considered: (1) whether the teacher’s conduct went beyond the scope of professionally acceptable choices and thereby violated J.S.J's equal protection rights; and (2) whether a reasonable teacher in her position would understand that such conduct violates a student’s right to equal protection. Mathers v. Wright, 636 F.3d at 399). It found the allegations regarding the teacher’s mistreatment of J.S.J. stated an equal protection violation on the basis that a reasonable teacher in her position would have recognized as much, and that the teacher was not entitled to qualified immunity at that stage of the proceeding. Id. at 402.

A teacher or school official who is sued in his or her individual capacity is entitled to qualified immunity so long as her conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known. Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, (1982). In Heidemann v. Rother, the Eighth Circuit held that school officials who, on the advice of a licensed school therapist used a blanket as a binding restraint on a disabled student did not violate the student's rights because the restraint technique was not "beyond the scope of professionally acceptable choices." 84 F.3d 1021, 1031 (8th Cir. 1996). In Heidemann, the Court noted that even if the conduct had violated the student's rights, the school personnel would be entitled to qualified immunity unless a reasonable official would have recognized that the conduct constituted a violation. Id. at 1029.

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