The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver recently upheld a school district’s use of a “timeout room” to discipline and briefly restrain a developmentally disabled student with disruptive behavioral issues. The student, J.M., was five years old and was known to throw tantrums, yell, spit, and kick in class. As a result, he was often placed in the timeout room, described as large enough for a student and teacher to fit comfortably and equipped with a light and window.  The district stated that he was placed in the room around 30 times over a span of two school years and was never kept in the room longer than four minutes.

The student’s parents sued individual school officials, including teachers and the principal, and the school district, claiming that use of the timeout room was a violation of their child’s constitutional rights under a 14th Amendment due process “shocks the conscience” analysis. To succeed on this type of claim, the challenged behavior must amount to a “brutal and inhumane” abuse of official power literally shocking the conscience. This standard is applied in all school discipline cases, not just cases involving school-inflicted corporal punishment.

The parents’ claim was based upon the district’s use of the timeout room in general, as well as a specific incident in which the school principal forced J.M. into the room and placed a chair in front of the door. While the Court acknowledged these particular details surrounding use of the timeout room were “a careless or unwise excess of zeal,” it nonetheless held that no conscience-shocking events had occurred. Therefore, the Court found no constitutional violation.

Because the Court found that no individual officials had violated J.M.’s constitutional rights, it stated that the principal also could not be liable under a theory of supervisory liability and the district could not be liable because the challenged conduct was not pursuant to official policy or custom.

The parents also attempted to raise a Fourth Amendment claim that the timeout room was a “seizure” that should have been analyzed under a reasonableness standard. Analyzing a school discipline case under this standard is more favorable to plaintiffs because it is easier to prove than the “shocks the conscience” standard. While the parents did not properly raise the claim and thus were barred procedurally, the Court stated that it is not well settled law that a court has any obligation in a school discipline case of this nature to evaluate a Fourth Amendment claim. Thus, even if the parents had properly raised the claim, the Court would have declined to consider it.

Although in this case the Tenth Circuit remained faithful to the Fourteenth Amendment shocks-the-conscience standard and declined to even additionally consider the Fourth Amendment reasonableness standard, in recent years other circuits have begun to allow such claims in analyzing various types of school discipline. Cases from the Ninth and Third circuits have involved excessive force or detention by school officials. In the Seventh Circuit, the Fourth Amendment standard was applied when a teacher “seized” a student by attempting to drag her out of the classroom by her elbow. In these cases, courts will often allow both standards to be applied to the conduct at issue. Because a Fourth Amendment reasonableness standard is arguably more lenient and plaintiff-friendly, school districts should be aware of the potential consequences of discipline if analyzed under both the Fourteenth and Fourth Amendments.