A New Orleans-area mother of a young girl is asking the United States Supreme Court to hear her case challenging a lower court’s decision to shield all violence by public-school officials from constitutional review. In 2020, Sonia Book’s daughter (who has nonverbal autism and is identified in the case as S.B.) was physically abused at least three times by her special-needs teachers in the classroom. 

In February 2020, S.B. allegedly kicked toward one of her behavioral technicians, without making any contact. In response, S.B.’s teacher, Janine Rowell, began slapping S.B.’s hands and yelling at her. None of the school staff who witnessed this reported it, but the technician got word to the principal. Yet the principal—even after learning that Rowell had also hit S.B. two weeks earlier—did not contact authorities or reprimand or fire Rowell. Rowell was simply transferred to another school. There, she went on to continue physically and verbally abusing young children with autism, for which she recently pleaded guilty to two criminal counts. 

When S.B. returned to school after pandemic interruptions, a teacher’s aide  hit her hands in response to a pinch by S.B. This time, S.B.’s teacher reported it to the principal. But again, the principal did not call authorities or reprimand or fire the perpetrator. Like Rowell, she too was simply transferred to another school. 

So S.B.’s mother sued the abusive teachers, the principal, and the school board in federal court for violating S.B.’s constitutional right to be free from excessive violence at school. Section 1983, the federal civil rights act, is supposed to guarantee that all state and local government officials face accountability when they violate constitutional rights. But the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, shields all violence by public-school teachers and employees from any constitutional scrutiny, no matter how unprovoked, unwarranted, or excessive. So it tossed Sonia’s claims out of court. Under the same rule, that court has dismissed claims arising from the repeated tasing of a student with disabilities and the choking of a first-grader for several minutes, among many others. 

The Fifth Circuit is alone in immunizing all violence by school employees from constitutional protection. Every other federal circuit court to address the issue has made it clear that students’ claims of excessive force or violence must be heard under the Constitution, as guaranteed by Section 1983. Unfortunately, geography currently dictates whether the teachers who physically abused S.B., and the officials who did nothing about it, can be held accountable. 

To ensure that her daughter and countless other students can trust, not fear, their teachers, Sonia teamed up with the Institute for Justice to ask the Supreme Court to reverse the Fifth Circuit’s perverse rule, which for decades has said that no amount of violence by public school officials is too much. That rule violates not only fundamental principles of right and wrong, but also the Constitution. 

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Dan King

Communications Project Manager

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