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  • 10th Circuit Upholds School’s Use of Desk With Restraining Bars

    Ebonie S. v. Pueblo School District 60, 819 F.Supp.2d 1179 (D.Colo. 2011)

    In its August 28th, 2012 decision the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals held that a school’s use of a desk with restraining bars did not violate a disabled child’s constitutional rights.

    The case arose in a kindergarten special education classroom inPueblo,Colorado, when a young girl, Ebonie S., was required to sit in a desk with restraining bars. The young girl’s mother field suit on her behalf under 42 U.S.C. 1983, alleging that the school’s use of the desk violated the Fourth Amendment, the Due Process Clause, the Equal Protection Clause, the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and the Rehabilitation Act. The District Court held that plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment, Due Process, and Equal Protection claims failed as a matter of law.  The district court did conclude, however, that plaintiff’sADAand Rehabilitation Act claims warranted consideration by a jury. The District Court granted summary judgment to defendants on the constitutional claims but did not grant summary judgment on the statutory claims. Plaintiff then appealed.

    The federal appeals court analyzed the merits of Plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment claim. The court concluded that the Coloradoschool district’s use of a wooden bar to prohibit students from pushing back on their chairs did not rise to the level of a “seizure” under the Fourth Amendment.  The court noted “in the ordinary law-enforcement setting, a seizure occurs ‘only if, in view of all the circumstances surrounding the incident, a reasonable person would have believed that he was not free to leave.’” (citing California v. Hodari, 499 U.S. 621, 628 (1991) The court added that seizures must be analyzed different in the school context because children are generally not free to leave the school building. (Couture, 535 F.3d at 1250-1). Once a seizure is found, the court must then determine “if the challenged action was ‘justified at its inception’ and ‘reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place.’” (Ebonie S. v. Pueblo School District 60, citing Edwards ex rel. Edwards v. Rees, 883 F.2d 882, 884 (10th Cir. 1989). Here, the court found that theColorado school district did not seize Ebonie S. because sitting in a chair faced forward “is the standard pose required of countless schoolchildren across the nation,” Ebonie S. “had the ability to remove herself from the restraints imposed on her” and “the restraining mechanisms were not attached to Ebonie’s body.”

    The court then went on to evaluate plaintiff’s Fourteenth Amendment claim. Plaintiff argues that the school district restricted Ebonie’s liberty without due process of law. The court referenced Doe v. Bagan, 41 F.3d 571, 575 (10th Cir. 1994) which held that due process rights are not violated by “minimally restrictive government actions.” As a result, the federal court concluded that a chair with wooden bars did not implicate plaintiff’s Fourteenth Amendment rights.

    The Equal Protection claim is based on the premise that the restraining bars are used exclusively in special education classrooms. The court noted that because plaintiff argued an interference with the individual right to be free from bodily restraint, strict scrutiny is the appropriate standard of review (United States v. Phelps, 17 F.3d 1334, 1344 (10th Cir. 1994). The court, however, cited to Hedgepeth ex rel. Hedgepeth v. Wash. Metro. Area Transit Auth., 386 F.3d 1148, 1156 (D.C. Cir. 2004) and determined that the use of a desk with restraining bars did not infringe on plaintiff’s right to be free from bodily restraint.

    A special thanks to Laura DeLuca, a law clerk at Cullen and Dykman LLP, for helping with this post. 

    If your institution has any further questions or concerns about Fourth Amendment claims in the classroom, or education law related matters, please email Cynthia Augello at caugello@cullenanddykman.com or call her at (516) 357 – 3753.