Understanding Student Civil Rights at School

October 6, 2023
lawsuits against school districts

Parents often reach out us to ask whether a school district can be sued for violating their student’s civil rights. In response, we often provide a nuanced explanation along the following lines: Addressing this question can be complex because under the law, public schools generally have the right to immunity from suit. Nevertheless, we clarify that school district immunity is not absolute. There are exceptions to immunity that can hold school districts accountable for civil rights violations.

Exception to School District Immunity for Civil Rights Violations

A significant exception to immunity is under the federal civil rights statute 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (“Section 1983”). This exception comes into play when school officials commit an act that infringes upon a student’s substantive due process rights and “shocks the conscience.” This standard sets a high bar for liability misconduct. The behavior in question must violate the decencies of a civilized society – meaning the actions are so egregious and offensive that they cannot be countenanced by a decent society.

Unusual Cases Highlight Conscience Standard

Many cases involving student corporal punishment are evaluated under the “shocks the conscience” standard. Nobody wants to see students physically assaulted by school officials. In instances of spanking, courts inquire if the force applied caused injury so severe or disproportionate to the need presented, and whether it was so inspired by malice or sadism that it shocks the conscience. Webb v. McCullough, 828 F.2d 1151, 1158 (6th Cir. 1987).

Courts use what has been referred to as a “calibrated yardstick” to assess liability in student discipline matters. Cty. of Sacramental v. Lewis, 523 U.S. 833, 846, 118 S.Ct. 1708, 140 L.Ed. 2d 1043 (1998). While not always cut and dry, there is enough case law that some assessment can be made as to whether a particular situation is actionable.

Some “shocks the conscience” cases are less obvious than corporal punishment cases. For instance, lawsuits have been filed for incidents involving a school official forcing a student to eat food out of a garbage can to prove a point, and another where a student was sprayed in the face with a juice box by an educator under the guise of “I’m going to teach you a lesson.” While those cases may not seem as severe as cases involving physical abuse, certainly if it were your child, you might feel differently.

There is no educational justification or valid defense for such behavior; it is deeply concerning. In fact, in such cases, students can experience serious emotional consequences, which may lead to their reluctance to attend school, complete homework, or perform well on tests and quizzes. It is important for students to have a supportive and nurturing environment at school, particularly in a world filled with various uncertainties.

Understanding Lawsuits Against School Districts

When discussing the possibility of a lawsuit against a school district with parents, the question of potential monetary recovery often arises. In response, it’s important to emphasize that the value of a case varies significantly. The amount of damages hinges on factors like the extent of physical and emotional harm and how a jury evaluates the impact on the behavior on the student. It is essential to recognize that each case is distinct. What remains consistent for every matter brought to our attention is the need to thoroughly understand the facts, review the applicable law, and evaluate whether the conduct in question violates a student’s rights.

For more information or to discuss further, please contact KJK’s Student & Athlete Defense attorneys Susan Stone (SCS@kjk.com; 216.736.7220) or Kristina Supler (KWS@kjk.com; 216.736.7217).