WASHINGTON—On Monday, the United States Supreme Court declined to hear a New Orleans-area mother’s appeal of a lower court’s ruling granting blanket immunity to public school officials who physically abused her daughter multiple times. Sonia Book teamed up with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to ask the Supreme Court to hear her case after the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that all public school employees, unlike other government officials, are exempt from constitutional accountability for violence against schoolchildren.
“The Supreme Court’s decision to not hear this case is devastating, not only for Sonia, but for all parents and schoolchildren in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas,” said IJ Attorney Jaba Tsitsuashvili. “The Fifth Circuit remains the only federal appeals court in the country that gives blanket immunity to public school employees who physically abuse children. That’s not only wrong, but also in clear violation of a federal statute that makes all government employees liable for violating the Constitution. Constitutional rights mean nothing without a way to hold accountable those who violate those rights.”
The abuse of Sonia’s daughter—identified as S.B.—began in February 2020. She 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.
School officials failed to reprimand Rowell, and in 2023 she 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.
The abuses S.B. suffered were in retaliation for conduct that was consistent with her autism. These abuses took a physical and mental toll on S.B., leaving her scared of the very people entrusted with educating and protecting her at school. She still struggles to trust educators to this day.
“I’m very upset, not just for myself and my daughter, but for the many children who are victims of physical abuse at school,” said Sonia. “Parents need to be able to hold accountable the people we trust with our kids when they do something awful like this.”
Sonia and S.B. are not alone. In granting blanket immunity to public school employees, the Fifth Circuit has turned away cases where a teacher choked a first grader for several minutes, a school resource officer repeatedly tased a disabled student, and an aide repeatedly kicked a severely disabled seven-year-old.
“The fact that the Fifth Circuit gives public school employees even more generous immunities than the already overly-generous qualified immunity that law enforcement receive is outrageous,” said IJ Senior Attorney Patrick Jaicomo. “We’ve seen the type of abuse this immunity can lead to, and it will continue to happen so long as this issue is not resolved.”
“While we’re frustrated with Monday’s decision to not hear Sonia’s case, and we’re saddened that she won’t get her day in court, we remain dedicated to fighting back against the outrageous immunities that allow injustice to continue anywhere in this country,” said IJ President and Chief Counsel Scott Bullock.