February 8, 2018
Late Monday afternoon, the Indiana Court of Appeals directed the entry of judgment in favor of the school corporation and a teacher after the teacher touched a first grader’s posterior when returning the student to her seat during testing. The Court held that the teacher’s conduct did not violate the student’s constitutional rights or constitute battery. Even assuming the mother’s exaggerated rendition of the allegation to be accurate, the Court held the teacher’s touching was reasonable under the circumstances.
In Fort Wayne Community Schools v. Haney, the school corporation appealed an Allen County trial court ruling allowing a student’s battery and violation of constitutional rights claim to be decided by a jury. Fort Wayne Schools successfully argued that the court must apply the qualified immunity doctrine, which frees a school and teacher from liability for a disciplinary action that is reasonable, taken in good faith, and designed to maintain an orderly and effective educational system.
Citing several federal court decisions, the appellate court held that the Court, not a jury, must decide whether the qualified immunity doctrine applies. While noting that the first grader testified that her mother instructed her to lie about the severity of the teacher’s discipline, for technical legal reasons, the appellate court was still required to assume the fabricated allegations that the daughter was smacked were true.
The Court went on to recite that even if the teacher “smacked or spanked” the first grader as alleged, the teacher acted in good faith and her conduct was reasonable to maintain a conducive learning environment. The teacher did not commit battery. The Court then proceeded to find that because the teacher’s actions were reasonable, she did not violate the student’s constitutional rights, noting that Indiana permits teachers to use moderate corporal punishment in schools. The Court further explained that teachers and administrators possess “considerable latitude in performing their educational responsibilities”, including classroom order. Tapping a student on her hind quarters “falls within the range of what [is] deemed appropriate.”
While it is advisable to avoid unnecessarily touching a student as part of discipline, simply because the touching happened, whether in the classroom, gymnasium, bus or elsewhere, does not create liability on the part of the school or teacher.
Have a question about this decision or a similar situation in your organization?Contact Tim Shelly or Matt Schram
Warrick & Boyn, LLP, is a full-service law firm in Elkhart, Ind., that practices in all areas of business and corporate law. Areas of practice include commercial litigation, creditors’ rights and bankruptcy law, labor and employment law, defense litigation, securities law and regulation, worker’s compensation defense, education and school law, EEOC law, employee benefits law and pension plans, environmental law and regulation, tax and estate planning, municipal law, and property and real estate law. The firm’s clients are located primarily in northern Indiana and southwestern Michigan, and most of the attorneys are licensed to practice in both Indiana and Michigan.