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Supreme Court Declines Case on Corporal Punishment for Student With Autism

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to take up a challenge to corporal punishment in schools, stemming from the case of an 11-year-old Louisiana girl with nonverbal autism who alleges she was slapped on her hands on three occasions by school personnel.

Lower courts threw out the student’s case, ruling that under prevailing precedent in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in New Orleans, as long as a state provides an adequate remedy for excessive corporal punishment, a student may not sue under the 14th Amendment’s due process clause.

The 5th Circuit, which covers Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, has ruled that all three states provide such an adequate remedy, advocates in the case say.

In their high court appeal in S.B. v. Jefferson Parish School Board, lawyers for the student argued the 5th Circuit standard is an outlier that conflicts with rulings by nine other federal circuits that allow federal constitutional claims against corporal punishment to be filed. But those other circuits disagree on whether they should proceed under the 14th Amendment’s due process clause or the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable seizures.

Lawyers with the Institute for Justice, an Arlington, Va., legal organization representing the student, asked the Supreme Court to resolve both questions.

“In short, the court can and should decide both questions presented because the circuits are avowedly split as to both the cognizability and the viability of claims like S.B.’s and those of so many other children subjected to state violence at school,” the appeal said.

Lawyers for the girl did not ask the court to outlaw corporal punishment or to reverse its 1977 decision in Ingraham v. Wright, which held that corporal punishment did not fall under the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments and that the due process clause did not require notice and a hearing before the use of corporal punishment. They also said that if the Supreme Court were to rule in their favor, the case should return to the lower courts so they could apply the new standard to S.B.’s case.

Alleged incidents were ‘minor,’ school district says

The lawsuit alleges that in 2020, S.B. was slapped by her special education teacher on two occasions and her special needs paraprofessional once, after the student had emotional outbursts. S.B.’s mother sued, bringing claims under the 14th Amendment as well as federal disabilities laws.

A federal district court dismissed all of her claims, and a panel of the 5th Circuit court affirmed the lower court’s decision before the family appealed to the Supreme Court solely on the constitutional issues surrounding corporal punishment.

The Jefferson Parish school district, near New Orleans, told the Supreme Court in a brief that S.B.’s allegations involved “minor incidents” that were not likely to rise to the level of a lawsuit that would be permitted under any constitutional standard.

“The incidents alleged by [S.B.] fail to shock the conscience for purposes of the substantive component of the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment,” the school district said. And the student’s lawyers had never raised a Fourth Amendment seizure claim in the lower courts, the district said. (S.B.’s lawyers conceded that point in their brief.)

“Given its shortcomings, this case does not present the proper vehicle for the far-ranging change in the law advocated by [S.B.],” the school district said.

S.B. did draw support in a friend-of-the-court brief signed by 14 individuals or groups that advocate for children, who argued that the 5th Circuit is out of step with most other circuits that have addressed legal standards over corporal punishment.

“The devastating real-world consequences of the 5th Circuit’s refusal to allow children to vindicate their federal constitutional right to be free from physical violence at the hands of public school officials are shockingly evident: half of all reported instances of corporal punishment in the United States occur in that circuit,” said the brief organized by the Center for the Rights of Abused Children in Phoenix.

The justices declined to review the case without comment or recorded dissent.

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