WASHINGTON—Today, a New Orleans-area mother asked the United States Supreme Court to hear her challenge to a lower court’s decision to shield school officials who assaulted her daughter multiple times from legal action. Sonia Book teamed up with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to file the cert petition after the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held the school officials who abused her daughter, who has nonverbal autism, were immune from her lawsuit. That federal appeals court, which covers Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, shields all violence by public-school educators and employees from any constitutional scrutiny, no matter how unwarranted or excessive.
“All government employees must respect constitutional rights. School employees should not be above the law when they physically abuse the children they are there to educate and help grow,” said IJ Attorney Jaba Tsitsuashvili. “Sonia deserves to have her constitutional claims against those who abused her daughter, and those who did nothing about it, heard in court. The Constitution and the federal civil rights law guarantee it.”
Sonia is a loving, hardworking mother of three. Her daughter (identified as S.B. in the lawsuit) has nonverbal autism, and at the recommendation of her speech therapist, Sonia enrolled her in Schneckenburger Elementary School. The first few years went well, but in 2020, S.B. suffered at least three instances of physical abuse by school staff.
On February 7, 2020, S.B. was working with a behavioral technician in her third-grade special education class. While the technician was picking up a puzzle, S.B. allegedly kicked in her direction. No contact was made. But S.B.’s teacher, Janine Rowell, slapped S.B. multiple times on the wrists while yelling at her. Multiple staff who witnessed the abuse failed to report it, but the technician got word to the principal. It soon came out that staff had also seen Rowell hit S.B. two weeks before and failed to report it then too.
After learning of these multiple instances of violence, the principal did not report Rowell to authorities, reprimand her, or fire her. Rowell was simply transferred to another school. Earlier this year, Rowell pleaded guilty to multiple criminal counts because she went on to continue physically and verbally abusing more young children with autism, including pushing them into tables, slapping them, calling them “dirty little thing,” and segregating them from other children.
When S.B. returned to school after pandemic interruptions, she was assaulted again by another educator. While working on spelling, S.B. allegedly pinched the paraprofessional she was working with, and the paraprofessional responded by hitting S.B. on the hands. S.B.’s new special education teacher reported the paraprofessional to the principal. Once again, the principal failed to report the violence to authorities or fire the educator; like Rowell, the paraprofessional was just transferred to another school.
These abuses took a physical and mental toll on S.B. and made her scared at school.
“If the school system isn’t going to hold the people who hit my daughter accountable, then I hoped the courts would, but so far that hasn’t happened,” said Sonia. “It makes no sense to me that people who hit your kids can get away with it if they work for the school. That’s who my daughter should be able to trust, not fear.”
In February 2021, Sonia sued the two teachers who hit S.B., the principal, and the school board under Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act, which is meant to provide an avenue for Americans to hold government officials accountable when their constitutional rights are violated. However, both the district court and the Fifth Circuit held that school officials are immune from civil liability under Section 1983. The Fifth Circuit is the only federal appeals court that immunizes school officials against constitutional claims. Under that rule, the Court has dismissed claims arising from the repeated tasing of a student with disabilities, the choking of a first-grader for several minutes, and the shoving and kicking of a student—among many others.
“The Fifth Circuit is way out of step with the rest of the nation’s courts on this issue, and we’re asking the Supreme Court to right this legal wrong,” said IJ Senior Attorney Patrick Jaicomo. “The absolute protection the Fifth Circuit has created for abusive teachers and school administrators is greater than the overly-generous immunities that already extend to police and every other public employee.”
As part of its Project on Immunity and Accountability, IJ is fighting back against the various immunities that shield government officials from accountability when they violate people’s rights. Those cases include going to the Supreme Court over the retaliatory arrest of a grandmother for petitioning her local government, challenging qualified immunity for Louisiana prison officials who kept a man incarcerated 525 days past his release date, and fighting back against judicial immunity for a West Virginia judge who led a warrantless search through a man’s home during a divorce hearing.