The Supreme Court: Punishing Students

Punishing Students

Schools always struggle with the issue of how to appropriately discipline students to maintain control in the school. Paddling is still used in 22 states, while suspensions are more common in others. Both methods have been challenged in cases brought to the Supreme Court. We'll review two of them: Ingraham v. Wright, which looks at rules for paddling, and Goss v. Lopez, which sets rules for suspensions.

Getting Spanked

Just the Facts

In 2003, two-thirds of Florida school districts still spank students. There is a move though toward using suspensions as the preferred mode of discipline. About 11,000 Florida students were paddled in 2003, according to the Florida Department of Education. Most schools that still use the paddle are in small, rural counties. Larger, urban counties opt instead to either send students home or use “in-school” suspensions, where the students are segregated from their classmates. Twenty-two states allow teachers to paddle students.

James Ingraham and Roosevelt Andrews were students at Charles R. Drew Junior High School in Dade County, Florida, when they filed suit in U.S. district court in 1971 complaining about a disciplinary paddling they received at the school. Florida law does allow teachers to paddle students provided they consult first with the principal and that the punishment is not “degrading or severe.” Florida actually specifies the length and width of the paddle and mandates that all blows are to the student's buttocks. Evidence in court showed that the paddling was exceptionally harsh. In fact one of the boys was unable to attend school for 11 days and the other lost use of his arm for one week.

Ingraham and Andrews accused school officials of inflicting punishment that was in violation of the cruel and unusual provision of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution and said they did not receive due process for their actions.

The district court dismissed the case because it found that there was no constitutional basis for relief. The circuit court agreed with the district court, so it was appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court agreed with the lower courts and found:

  • The cruel and unusual punishments clause of the Eighth Amendment does not apply to disciplinary corporal punishment in public schools. This Amendment is clearly designed to protect someone convicted of a crime.
  • There is no need to extend the Eighth Amendment protections to public school disciplinary practices because there are significant safeguards in place in the community if school officials go too far.
  • The due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment does not require notice and hearing prior to the imposition of corporal punishment in the schools provided there are procedural safeguards in place that minimize the risk of wrongful punishment and provide for resolution of disputes.

Justice Powell wrote in his opinion for the court announced on April 9, 1977:

  • “The use of corporal punishment in this country as a means of disciplining schoolchildren dates back to the colonial period. It has survived the transformation of primary and secondary education from the colonials' reliance on optional private arrangements to our present system of compulsory education and dependence on public schools. Despite the general abandonment of corporal punishment as a means of punishing criminal offenders, the practice continues to play a role in the public education of schoolchildren in most parts of the country. Professional and public opinion is sharply divided on the practice, and has been for more than a century. Yet we can discern no trend toward its elimination …. An examination of the history of the Amendment and the decisions of this Court construing the proscription against cruel and unusual punishment confirms that it was designed to protect those convicted of crimes. We adhere to this longstanding limitation, and hold that the Eighth Amendment does not apply to the paddling of children as a means of maintaining discipline in public schools.”

Suspending Students

Many schools choose to suspend students rather than paddle them today. You may be surprised to learn that the Supreme Court actually ruled that suspension can raise a constitutional question.

In February and March 1971 there was a period of unrest in which many students were suspended from schools in Columbus, Ohio. Nine of these students filed suit in district court claiming they had been suspended from public school for up to 10 days without a hearing. They said these suspensions violated the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because they were deprived their rights to an education without a hearing of any kind. Students also asked that references to these suspensions be removed from their student records.

Six of the students attended Marion-Franklin High School and were suspended for disruptive or disobedient conduct because of a demonstration in the high school auditorium. None of the students was given a hearing to determine the facts, but each was offered the opportunity to attend a conference with their parents after being suspended to discuss the student's future.

The named plaintiff, Dwight Lopez, testified that 75 students were suspended from his junior high, Central High. He said he was not a party to the destructive conduct in the lunchroom, but was only an innocent bystander. There was no evidence in the court record from the school administrators that questioned Lopez's testimony. Lopez was never given a hearing.

School officials contended there was no constitutional right to an education at public expense and that the due process clause did not protect against expulsions. The Supreme Court disagreed in a split 5 to 4 decision. Justices White, Douglas, Brennan, Stewart and Marshall were in the majority. In delivering the opinion for the Court on January 22, 1975, Justice White wrote:

  • “The Fourteenth Amendment forbids the State to deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. Protected interests in property are normally 'not created by the Constitution. Rather, they are created and their dimensions are defined' by an independent source such as state statutes or rules entitling the citizen to certain benefits …. Here, on the basis of state law, appellees plainly had legitimate claims of entitlement to a public education. Ohio Rev Code … direct local authorities to provide a free education to all residents between five and 21 years of age, and a compulsory-attendance law requires attendance for a school year of not less than 32 weeks. It is true that … the Code permits school principals to suspend students for up to 10 days; but suspensions may not be imposed without any grounds whatsoever. All of the schools had their own rules specifying the grounds for expulsion or suspension. Having chosen to extend the right to an education to people of appellees' class generally, Ohio may not withdraw that right on grounds of misconduct, absent fundamentally fair procedures to determine whether the misconduct has occurred. Although Ohio may not be constitutionally obligated to establish and maintain a public school system, it has nevertheless done so and has required its children to attend. Those young people do not 'shed their constitutional rights' at the schoolhouse door. … The Fourteenth Amendment, as now applied to the States, protects the citizen against the State itself and all of its creatures—Boards of Education not excepted. The authority possessed by the State to prescribe and enforce standards of conduct in its schools although concededly very broad, must be exercised consistently with constitutional safeguards.”

In its decision the Supreme Court held that a 10-day suspension is not de minimis and may not be imposed in complete disregard of the due process clause. The Court specified that due process requires a student be given oral or written notice of the charges against him or her. If he or she denies them, an explanation of the evidence authorities have must be presented and the student must be given a chance to present his or her version.

Court Connotations

De minimis is the Latin word for “of minimum importance” or “trifling.” In law it refers to something or a difference that is so small or tiny that the law does not refer to it or consider it. For example in a contract deal, a $1 million error could be questioned legally, while a $10 error is de minimis.

This notice and hearing should precede the student's removal from the school and in most cases does almost immediately follow the misconduct before the student is removed from the school. In some cases where the student is so disruptive he or she must be removed from school property immediately, the notice and hearing can take place after removal as soon as practicable.

Sarita Sarvate, a reporter for Pacific News Service (PNS), learned close-up how this works when her son was suspended from school in 2002 and she wrote up her experiences for PNS. In her story, she described how she received a call from the principal saying her son had stolen a substitute teacher's sunglasses and there were witnesses to the crime. Her son insisted the sunglasses had fallen from the teacher's desk and when he picked them up the lenses popped out. The sunglasses were never found, but her son insisted he didn't take them.

Sarita Sarvate and her husband were in the principal's office the next day where they were shown the written notice of the charges as required by the Supreme Court. After trying to defend their son's position, her husband told the principal, “When the CEO of Enron lies, he is offered First Amendment protection. But when a child denies guilt, he doesn't get Miranda rights?” They asked for a hearing but were denied and were told an internal investigation had already been conducted. The written notice was all the proof they were going to get that their son had been judged, condemned, and given his sentence.

Sarvate raised numerous questions that many parents are probably still asking today about the suspension process:

  • Why do our textbooks tell our children that a person is innocent until proven guilty? That a person accused of a crime has the right to a defense? At school, in real situations, they learn the opposite.
  • Do our schools criminalize children unnecessarily? Does that lead some to such distrust of the world and loss of self-esteem that suspicion of misbehavior and even crime become a self-fulfilling prophecy?

The situation might actually be worse if Justice Powell's dissenting opinion had been the majority rule. Chief Justice Burger and Justices Blackmun and Rehnquist joined Powell's dissent. Powell wrote:

  • “One of the more disturbing aspects of today's decision is its indiscriminate reliance upon the judiciary, and the adversary process, as the means of resolving many of the most routine problems arising in the classroom. In mandating due process procedures the Court misapprehends the reality of the normal teacher-pupil relationship. There is an ongoing relationship, one in which the teacher must occupy many roles—educator, adviser, friend, and, at times, parent-substitute. It is rarely adversary in nature except with respect to the chronically disruptive or insubordinate pupil whom the teacher must be free to discipline without frustrating formalities.
  • “The Ohio statute, providing as it does for due notice both to parents and the Board, is compatible with the teacher-pupil relationship and the informal resolution of mistaken disciplinary action. We have relied for generations upon the experience, good faith and dedication of those who staff our public schools, and the nonadversary means of airing grievances that always have been available to pupils and their parents. One would have thought before today's opinion that this informal method of resolving differences was more compatible with the interests of all concerned than resort to any constitutionalized procedure, however blandly it may be defined by the Court.”

Do you know your school's policies on punishment for your child? As a parent it's a good idea to understand exactly what the school can and cannot do before your child comes home after being tried and convicted for an action in school.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to The Supreme Court © 2004 by Lita Epstein, J.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.