FEDERAL APPEALS COURT RULES THAT HANDCUFFING A NON-COMPLIANT SECOND GRADE STUDENT DID NOT VIOLATE THE STUDENT’S CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS
August 14, 2019
In a decision released less than two weeks ago, the United States Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit concluded that handcuffing a 7-year-old student did not constitute an unlawful seizure or the use of excessive force under the U.S. Constitution. K.W.P. v. Kansas City Public Schools, et al., Dec. No. 17-3602 (8th Cir., 8/1/2019). The 8th Circuit’s decision differs from a series of previous federal appellate court decisions, all of which concluded that handcuffing students violated those students’ constitutional rights.
Facts of the Case
The situation that gave rise to the legal issues presented in the case began with a verbal altercation between two young students that took place in an elementary school classroom.
A 7 year old student, identified as K.W.P., was being teased incessantly by another student. K.W.P. became extremely frustrated and responded by yelling at the student who was teasing him. As tensions between the two students escalated, another school employee entered the classroom and admonished K.W.P. to sit down and told him that “the security guard (is) coming.” K.W.P. admitted that he continued to yell at the other student in spite of this directive.
Officer Brandon Craddock, the School Resource Officer, subsequently entered the room to assist with the situation. Craddock did not know K.W.P. and had not had any previous dealings with him.
Officer Craddock attempted to diffuse the situation by asking K.W.P. to come into the hallway. At first, K.W.P. refused to do so. Ultimately, when K.W.P. did comply with Craddock’s request, he forcefully pushed his chair away as he got up in an “angry” and “emotional” manner.
Once K.W.P. was in the hallway, Officer Craddock told K.W.P. that he would not allow K.W.P. back into the classroom and asked K.W.P. to follow him. K.W.P. admitted that he did not comply with Craddock’s request and acknowledged that he was “trying to get away.” K.W.P. also admitted that he “wanted to stand up for (himself).”
Officer Craddock responded to K.W.P.’s behavior by bending down to K.W.P.’s level and asking him to calm down. K.W.P. was unresponsive, however, and began to walk away. Officer Craddock told K.W.P. to stop walking away several times, but K.W.P. did not comply with Craddock’s directives.
Consequently, Officer Craddock put his hand on K.W.P.’s back to guide him in the direction that Craddock wanted him to go. K.W.P. continued to resist Craddock’s guidance and, eventually, Craddock grabbed K.W.P. by the wrist. K.W.P. began crying and screaming, and admitted that--at this point--he was “jerking (his) body away” from Craddock.
K.W.P. continued his efforts to escape and pulled away from Officer Craddock. Craddock responded by stating, “[s]on, if you don’t calm down, I’m going to have to put the cuffs on.” K.W.P. responded by grabbing a handrail that was on one side of the hallway.
Officer Craddock then handcuffed K.W.P.’s hands behind him and took him to the office. According to K.W.P. once he was in the office, he obeyed Craddock’s directions, sat in a chair, and did not attempt to leave.
K.W.P. sued the Kansas City Public Schools (KCPS), claiming that Officer Craddock and the building principal, Anne Wallace, violated his rights under the 4th and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
K.W.P. claimed that the physical restraints Officer Craddock used were an unreasonable seizure of his person and, in addition, that Craddock used excessive force by handcuffing him and by failing to remove the handcuffs when he was no longer resisting the officer. K.W.P. also alleged that Principal Wallace unlawfully endorsed and furthered Craddock’s conduct, claiming that Wallace had a duty under the Constitution to instruct Craddock to remove the handcuffs after K.W.P. had been seated in her office, because the student was complying with their directives and posed no imminent threat to anyone.
The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals’ Decision
The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals determined that Officer Craddock, and Principal Wallace did not violate K.W.P.’s constitutional rights to be free from unreasonable seizure and the use of excessive force, because Craddock and Wallace acted reasonably under the circumstances presented. Therefore, the Court concluded that Craddock and Wallace were entitled to qualified immunity from K.W.P.’s claims under federal law.
The Court began its analysis by noting that public authorities cannot subject citizens to “unreasonable” searches and seizures, but that “reasonable” seizures are still constitutionally permissible. The Court acknowledged that it is often difficult to determine whether a public official’s physical restraint of a student is reasonable, because what is “reasonable” will inevitably involve a factual evaluation and each student incident is—at least to some degree--unique. Further, the Court noted that relevant court decisions providing guidance on what is “reasonable” often differ in critical factual respects. The Court also noted that an additional, complicating factor is that other federal Courts of Appeals did not even agree on the appropriate legal standard for determining whether law enforcement seizures are “reasonable.” The Court concluded that this debate between federal appellate courts was immaterial to K.W.P.’s lawsuit, however, because K.W.P. could not prevail under any accepted standard for determining what constitutes a “reasonable” seizure.
The Court observed that when other federal Courts of Appeals found violations of students’ constitutional rights, students who had been handcuffed had complied with adult directives and did not resist efforts to control their behavior. In contrast, the Court noted, K.W.P. admitted to refusing to obey Craddock, attempting to get away, pulling away from Craddock physically, crying, screaming, and jerking his body away when Craddock grabbed his wrist. K.W.P. also admitted that he grabbed a handrail when Craddock told him that he would have to be cuffed if he did not comply. The Court also noted that Craddock took any number of less onerous steps to control K.W.P. before resorting to handcuffing the student as a means of controlling him. As a result, the Court concluded that Craddock acted reasonably.
The Court also concluded that keeping K.W.P. in handcuffs during the 15 minutes he was seated in the Principal’s office did not violate K.W.P.’s constitutional rights. The Court acknowledged that K.W.P. had stopped resisting by the time he reached the front office and that, once there, he did not make any attempt to leave. However, the Court noted that in cases where a constitutional violation was found, students were handcuffed for substantially longer periods of time than K.W.P. and, at times, for impermissible, punitive purposes, rather than to simply maintain control of the student. Consequently, the Court concluded that keeping K.W.P. handcuffed until a parent arrived was a reasonable course of action and “was necessary to prevent K.W.P. from trying to leave and posing harm to himself.”
Issues and Guidance for School Districts
The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision is instructive. To be sure, other Circuit Courts of Appeals have reached a different conclusion when students who were more cooperative than K.W.P. were handcuffed. Moreover, we have not seen a substantially similar case reach our 7th Circuit Court of Appeals; as a result, we have yet to receive definitive guidance on this issue from the federal appellate court that has jurisdiction over Wisconsin school districts. Nevertheless, the 8th Circuit’s opinion provides a learned perspective on when handcuffing a student may be permissible and when it is not.
The 8th Circuit decision makes a clear distinction between non-compliant, resistant students and compliant students to support its constitutional analysis: the Court indicated that compliant students should not be handcuffed, but stated more directly that–at least in certain circumstances–non-compliant students may ultimately be handcuffed without violating their constitutional right to be free from unreasonable seizures or the use of excessive force. This basic distinction helps school districts consider and refine their working protocols for handling students that are physically aggressive or non-compliant.
However, Wisconsin school districts also have to remember that this case only involves constitutional issues and is not necessarily instructive for other legal purposes. The physical means that Officer Craddock used to control K.W.P. would still constitute “restraint” under Wisconsin law and corresponding school district seclusion and restraint policies. Consequently, school employees that are not SROs certainly must be mindful of prohibitions against seclusion and physical restraint established by Wisconsin law.
But what of SROs themselves? School districts generally treat law enforcement personnel as exempt from school district seclusion and restraint policies. At least as a general matter, this is perfectly appropriate.
Wis. Stat. §118.305 governs seclusion and physical restraint of students in Wisconsin schools. The statute applies to “covered individual(s)”, which includes “[a]n individual who is employed by a person under contract with a governing body to provide services for the benefit of the school governed by the governing body.” Wis. Stat. §118.305(1)(c). However, the definition of a “covered individual” does not include “[a] law enforcement officer who is authorized or designated by a governing body to perform any duty under s. 118.125(1)(bL) 1. or 2. in a school governed by the governing body.”
In turn, Wis. Stat. § 118.125(1)(bL) 1. concerns the duties of any individual that is authorized or designated by the school board to “[e]nforce any law or ordinance, or refer to the appropriate authorities a matter for enforcement of any law or ordinance, against any person other than the school district.” Wis. Stat. §118.305(1)(bL) 2. concerns the duties of any individual that is authorized or designated by the school board to “[m]aintain the physical security and safety of a public school.”
The challenge presented by these exemptions from the statutory definition of a “covered individual” is that they simultaneously refer to a type of person (a law enforcement officer authorized to do certain things) but also focus on those persons when they are authorized to execute certain duties. Thus, while schools are generally on solid ground treating SROs as exempt from statutory seclusion and restraint prohibitions, it nevertheless makes sense for school districts to be at least somewhat cautious about developing protocols that authorize or permit SROs to, for example, handcuff students for reasons that are not among the duties identified in state statutes.
The same holds true for situations involving special education students. To be sure, school personnel—including SROs—have greater latitude to use physical restraint or force when it is necessary to protect themselves or others. Nevertheless, special education students have Individualized Education Programs (IEP) that, in some instances, address how a student’s physical aggression or non-compliance should be handled. An IEP may also spell out specific protocols to be observed when school personnel intervene physically to address student behavior. The IEP must be followed; a particular means of physical intervention may not violate a student’s constitutional rights, but could still violate that same student’s IEP.
School districts should also be aware that complainants might be entitled to attorney fees if they successfully prosecute the type of constitutional claims that K.W.P. brought in federal court. In addition, damages or other relief may be granted to address any violation of a student’s constitutional rights. As a result, the stakes are high in restraint cases that implicate the Constitution.
A challenging issue that was not presented in the K.W.P. case is how schools should address situations where a student has a history of aggressive or violent behavior, even though the student is not behaving violently in a specific situation (at least not yet).
Any decision to handcuff a student has to be reasonable. Accordingly, it makes sense for school officials to demonstrate self-control when a student is also doing so. However, a student’s history of aggressive behavior clearly can be accounted for in determining what is reasonable and, therefore, in deciding how quickly to have an SRO handcuff a student as a means of acquiring and maintaining control over him/her.
This places a premium on capable supervision and accurate, supportive record keeping to document previous incidents in which a student was physically resistant or non-compliant. If physical restraints are used more quickly and/or before other, less onerous options have been exhausted, school personnel will likely have to justify why they did not provide a greater opportunity for a student to comply voluntarily. It is also likely that courts reviewing school personnel’s conduct will want to know whether a student had a reasonable opportunity to comply with their directives before being subjected to handcuffing or other forms of restraint.
A “reasonable” opportunity to comply may not be the same for every student. That being said, a school district will likely need to demonstrate that an SRO had sufficient justification for, for example, handcuffing a student without exhausting other options. To do so, a school district will almost certainly have to show that a student’s behavioral history and related safety concerns required more immediate intervention and that the method of restraint (handcuffing) used was reasonable in the circumstances presented.
For questions regarding this article, please contact the author, Attorney Kirk D. Strang (email firstname.lastname@example.org; telephone: 844.626.0906), or your Strang, Patteson, Renning, Lewis & Lacy, s.c., attorney.
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