Corporal Punishment in the Public Schools: An Analysis of Federal Constitutional Claims

By Mitchell, Courtney | Law and Contemporary Problems, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Corporal Punishment in the Public Schools: An Analysis of Federal Constitutional Claims


Mitchell, Courtney, Law and Contemporary Problems


I

INTRODUCTION

Victims of corporal punishment in public schools have challenged the infliction of their resulting injuries under a variety of constitutional provisions, specifically, the Eighth Amendment, the procedural-due-process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the substantive-due-process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Fourth Amendment. In Ingraham v. Wright, (1) the Supreme Court foreclosed the Eighth Amendment argument and minimized the possibilities for a successful procedural-due-process claim. (2) Yet because the Court denied certiorari of the Ingraham plaintiffs' substantive-due-process claim, (3) later litigants turned to substantive due process for protection against excessive corporal punishment. With no guidance from the Supreme Court, the majority of the circuit courts (4) confronted with these claims determined that excessive corporal punishment can violate substantive due process, but only if the punishment meets an exceptionally high standard.

Recently, in several cases challenging excessive corporal punishment, the Seventh and Ninth Circuits strayed from the substantive-due-process framework and evaluated the school officials' conduct under the Fourth Amendment's "reasonableness" standard, which was developed and applied to the public-school setting in New Jersey v. T.L.O. (5) This note will document the deficiencies of a substantive-due-process challenge to excessive corporal punishment and offer support for the emerging Fourth Amendment analysis that may provide litigants with an infrequently received remedy.

II

FEDERAL CONSTITUTIONAL CLAIMS

A. Ingraham, the Eighth Amendment, and Procedural Due Process

In 1971, James Ingraham and Roosevelt Andrews, two Florida junior-high-school students, challenged the use of disciplinary corporal punishment in the Dade County public schools. (6) Ingraham was subjected to more than twenty "licks" with a paddle after he was slow to respond to a teacher's instructions. (7) The beating was so severe that he suffered a hematoma and missed several days of school after the incident. Andrews was paddled several times, and, after being struck on his arms, he was unable to use one of his arms for a full week.

Their case challenging corporal punishment, Ingraham v. Wright, (8) was ultimately heard by the United States Supreme Court. (9) Noting that the instances of paddling were "exceptionally harsh," (10) the Court nevertheless denied the students' constitutional claims. (11) In response to the plaintiffs' Eighth Amendment challenge, (12) the Court reviewed the Amendment's historical roots and determined that its protection was limited to those convicted of crimes; thus, school children paddled as a means of maintaining discipline could not avail themselves of Eighth Amendment protection. (13) Additionally, the Court held that the procedural safeguards available under Florida common law (14) "considered in light of the openness of the school environment" were sufficient to afford procedural due process." Further procedural safeguards, such as prior notice or a hearing, were not required by the due-process clause because "[s]uch a universal constitutional requirement would significantly burden the use of corporal punishment as a disciplinary measure." (16) Finally, the Court denied certiorari on the issue of "whether or under what circumstances" such punishment of a public-school child could give rise to a substantive-due-process claim. (17) Consequently, the circuit courts were left to resolve this question.

B. Substantive Due Process

1. Substantive Due Process and Section 1983

The Due-Process Clause of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments provides that neither the United States nor state governments shall deprive any person of "life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." (18) This clause imposes two separate limits on the government: procedural due process and substantive due process. …

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