When Does Restraint and Seclusion Violate a Child’s Fourth Amendment Rights?
When May a SPED Parent File a Federal Court Complaint Without First Exhausting Administrative Remedies under the IDEA?
In 2018, parents of children in special education filed a complaint in federal district court against a school district, special education teacher, and other school staff, in which they claimed, among other things, that when the special education teacher restrained and secluded their children, she violated their rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.
The defendants moved the court to dispose of the case on the basis that they were protected by qualified immunity against the parents’ claims, and because the parents hadn’t first exhausted their administrative remedies under the IDEA.
On September 20, 2021, the federal district court issued its decision granting, denying, and dismissing over forty of the parties' motions and claims, in which it ruled that the parents weren’t required to exhaust their administrative remedies under the IDEA because the most serious parts of their complaint were focused on the abuse their children suffered at school - not on denial of a free appropriate public education under the IDEA. The decision was appealed to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.
On August 1, 2022, the Eighth Circuit issued its decision. Although it rejected the parents’ Fourteenth Amendment claims, noting that the children did not have records of behaviors that placed them or others in imminent danger of serious physical harm, the court held that the special education teacher committed Fourth Amendment violations when she:
1. secluded a child in "the little room,"
2. secluded a second child with barriers in a "calm-down corner,"
3. forcibly held down a third child, stripped off his clothes, put him in a bathing suit; and
4. grabbed the same child by his arms, pushed him into a swimming pool, and wouldn’t let him get out.
The court further held teacher wasn’t entitled to qualified immunity on these Fourth Amendment claims because she had violated the students’ clearly established federal rights when she:
1. curtailed the students' movement severely enough to implicate the Fourth Amendment;
2. substantially departed from accepted standards such that she unreasonably seized the students in contravention of their Fourth Amendment rights;
3. substantially departed from accepted principles when restraining and secluding the students, she violated clearly established federal rights.
Citing its decisions holding that an authorized professional's treatment of a student with disabilities is reasonable if the professional’s actions are “not a substantial departure from accepted professional judgment, practice, or standards,” the court found that the standards in this case were "clear cut," and quoted the May 2012 U.S. Department of Education Guidance stating: “Physical restraint or seclusion should not be used except in situations where the child's behavior poses an imminent danger of serious physical harm to self or others and other interventions are ineffective and should be discontinued as soon as imminent danger of serious physical harm to self or others has dissipated. . . . Restraint or seclusion should never be used as punishment or discipline] . . . as a means of coercion or retaliation, or as a convenience.”