Today, many school districts have law enforcement officers assigned to work exclusively in their schools. These officers, often called school resource officers (SROs), are assigned to the schools to promote a proper educational environment by enhancing safety and security at the schools. These SROs may be employed directly by a school district or may work for the local law enforcement agency and be assigned to a particular school or schools by agreement.
At times, these SROs find themselves in situations that require them to use some degree of force in dealing with a student. This article will examine the two possible legal standards that apply to SROs when using force against students.
In 2006, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided Gray v. Bostic [i], in which a school resource officer, Deputy Bostic, heard a nine year old female, Laquarius Gray, tell a coach that she would “bust [her] in the head” after the coach reprimanded her for failing to participate in jumping jacks. [ii] Gray denied making that threat but did acknowledge that she said she would do something to the coach. As another coach, who also heard the threat, called to Gray to reprimand her. Deputy Bostic intervened and insisted that he would handle the threat. He then told Gray to turn around and put her hands behind her back. He handcuffed her and stated “This is how it feels when you break the law,” and “This is how it feels to be in jail.” [iii] Gray began to cry and Deputy Bostic kept her handcuffed for at least five minutes. He also told Gray that a less generous officer may arrest her if she committed a misdemeanor in his presence. Both coaches said that they did not fear Gray could or would carry out her threat.
Ultimately, Gray filed suit against Deputy Bostic for violating her Fourth Amendment rights by committing an unreasonable seizure and using excessive force. Deputy Bostic filed a motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity.
The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals set out to determine whether Deputy Bostic was entitled to qualified immunity. First, the court examined whether Deputy Bostic violated the Fourth Amendment when he detained and handcuffed Gray. The court noted, that in a previous decision they held that they would apply the reasonableness standard set forth by the United States Supreme Court in New Jersey v. T.L.O. [iv] The court stated:
In T.L.O., the Supreme Court recognized that the substantial need to maintain discipline in the classroom and foster a positive learning environment “requires some modification of the level of suspicion of illicit activity needed to justify a search” in the public school setting. T.L.O. 469 U.S. at 340, 105 S.Ct. at 742. To that end, the Supreme Court concluded that “the accommodation of the privacy interests of schoolchildren with the substantial need of teachers and administrators for freedom to maintain order in the schools does not require strict adherence to the requirement that searches be based on probable cause.” Id. at 341, 105 S.Ct. at 742. Instead, under T.L.O.‘s reasonableness standard, “the legality of a search of a student should depend simply on the reasonableness, under all the circumstances, of the search.” Id. Under the T.L.O. standard, the reasonableness of the search is evaluated using a two-step inquiry: “first, one must consider `whether the … action was justified at its inception’; second, one must determine whether the search as actually conducted `was reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified interference in the first place.‘” Id. at 341, 105 S.Ct. at 742-43. [v] [emphasis added]
The court of appeals then analyzed the facts of Gray’s case with the rule above. First, the court examined whether Deputy Bostic’s action was “justified at its inception.” This standard is met if the deputy acted reasonably under the circumstances. This is often likened to the “reasonable suspicion” standard set forth in Terry v. Ohio [vi]. Gray argued that the officer did not have probable cause or arguable probable cause to arrest her for any criminal offense. However, the court held that, since the deputy witnessed Gray make a threat in the school setting, the lesser standard of “reasonableness” required by T.L.O. was met. As such, the court held that Deputy Bostic acted reasonably when he called Gray over to him, stopped her and questioned her about the threat.
But, the inquiry does not stop there. Second, the court set out to examine the second prong of T.L.O., particularly, whether the seizure “was reasonable related in scope to the circumstances that justified interference in the first place.” Thus, the court examined whether Deputy Bostic’s action of handcuffing a nine year old was reasonably related to the scope of the circumstances that first justified Gray’s detention and was not excessively intrusive. The court first noted that Deputy Bostic admitted that he did not handcuff Gray to arrest her; rather, he handcuffed her during what amounted to an investigatory stop. The court stated that:
[D]uring an investigatory stop, an officer can still handcuff a detainee when the officer reasonably believes that the detainee presents a potential threat to safety. See United States v. Hastamorir, 881 F.2d 1551, 1557 (11th Cir.1989); United States v. Blackman, 66 F.3d 1572, 1576-77 (11th Cir.1995); United States v. Kapperman, 764 F.2d 786, 790-91 & n. 4 (11th Cir.1985). [vii] [emphasis added]
However, the court noted that in Gray’s case, there was no indication of a potential threat to anyone’s safety. The court stated:
[T]here was no indication of a potential threat to anyone’s safety. The incident was over, and Gray, after making the comment, had promptly complied with her teachers’ instructions, coming to the gym wall and then to Coach Horton when told to do so. There is no evidence that Gray was gesturing or engaging in any further disruptive behavior. Rather, Gray had cooperated with her teachers and did not pose a threat to anyone’s safety. In fact, Coach Horton had insisted that she would handle the matter, but Deputy Bostic still intervened. Deputy Bostic does not even claim that he handcuffed Gray to protect his or anyone’s safety. Rather, Deputy Bostic candidly admitted that he handcuffed Gray to persuade her to get rid of her disrespectful attitude and to impress upon her the serious nature of committing crimes. In effect, Deputy Bostic’s handcuffing of Gray was his attempt to punish Gray in order to change her behavior in the future. [viii]
As such, the Eleventh Circuit held that the handcuffing was excessively intrusive under the Fourth Amendment and the T.L.O. standard, given Gray’s young age and the fact that she did not pose a threat to anyone.
After deciding that Deputy Bostic violated the Fourth Amendment when he handcuffed Gray, the court next had to determine whether the law was “clearly established” such that a reasonably officer would have known that his conduct was unlawful. If the law was “clearly established,” Deputy Bostic is not entitled to qualified immunity; if the law was not “clearly established,” then the deputy is entitled to qualified immunity. The law is “clearly established” in the Eleventh Circuit when there is a factually similar case from the United States Supreme Court, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, or the highest court in the state of incident (here, Alabama). Additionally, the law can be “clearly established” in the absence of a factually similar case when the constitutional violation is obvious, or what the court sometimes refers to as there being “obvious clarity” of the violation. [ix]
In Gray’s case, the Eleventh Circuit held:
We likewise conclude that Deputy Bostic’s conduct in handcuffing Gray, a compliant, nine-year-old girl for the sole purpose of punishing her was an obvious violation of Gray’s Fourth Amendment rights. After making the comment, Gray had complied with her teachers’ and Deputy Bostic’s instructions. Indeed, one of the teachers had informed Deputy Bostic that she would handle the matter. In addition, Deputy Bostic’s purpose in handcuffing Gray was not to pursue an investigation to confirm or dispel his suspicions that Gray had committed a misdemeanor. Rather, Deputy Bostic’s purpose in handcuffing Gray was simply to punish her and teach her a lesson. Every reasonable officer would have known that handcuffing a compliant nine-year-old child for purely punitive purposes is unreasonable. We emphasize that the Court is not saying that the use of handcuffs during an investigatory stop of a nine-year-old child is always unreasonable, but just unreasonable under the particular facts of this case. [x]
As such, Deputy Bostic was not entitled to qualified immunity.
Thus, the first legal standard that may govern a SRO’s use of force on a student in the school setting is that standard set forth above by the United States Supreme Court in New Jersey v. T.L.O.
The second legal standard that may govern a SROs use of force on a student is the standard set forth by the United States Supreme Court in Graham v. Connor. [xi] This is the same standard applied to law enforcement officers in typical use of force situations that officers (non-SROs) face every day. In Graham, the Supreme Court stated that there are three factors that should be considered when evaluating whether or not an officer’s use of force was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. First, the officer must consider the seriousness of the offense at issue. Second, the officer should consider whether the suspect poses a threat to the officer or others. Third, the officer should consider whether the suspect is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.
The United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee decided, Hoskins et al. v. Cumberland County Board of Education et al. [xii] in which, due to an absence of Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals precedent, that court opined that the traditional Graham standard was the most appropriate to apply to the handcuffing of an eight year old male student.
In that case, an eight year old male student, who was being reprimanded, allegedly threatened to “beat the crap” out of the teacher and swung his fist at her but did not hit her. He was escorted to the principal’s office and allegedly threatened, but did not swing at, the principal and the SRO. He was larger than the typical eight year old, at approximately 5 ½ feet tall and 112 pounds. Once in the principal’s office, the SRO handcuffed the child with the intent to arrest him and take him to juvenile detention. When he realized he knew the child’s parents from previous encounters, he called them to come to the school. The child remained handcuffed for approximately 45 minutes and was subsequently released to his parents.
Later, a suit was filed which, among other things, alleged that the officer violated the student’s Fourth Amendment’s right to be free from unreasonable seizures. The district court examined the standard set forth in T.L.O. followed by the Eleventh Circuit in Gray, and the standard that applies to typical law enforcement uses of force set forth in Graham. The district court noted that there was no binding precedent from the Sixth Circuit for the court to follow.
In applying the three factor test listed above from Graham, the court held that the officer did not act reasonably under the Fourth Amendment since (1) the crime was minor, (2) the lack of immediate threat posed by the juvenile, and (3) the lack of active resistance or flight. The court stated:
[T]he Court concludes that Defendant Tollett’s initial handcuffing of T.H. was not objectively reasonable, and his leaving the child handcuffed for forty-five minutes was even less reasonable. Defendant Tollett violated T.H.’s Fourth Amendment rights. [xiii]
However, the court also analyzed the case under the T.L.O. standard in the event that the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals later determines that to be the applicable standard. In applying that standard, the court stated:
Using the two-part reasonableness inquiry set forth in T.L.O., the Court finds, based on reasons articulated above, that even if the initial handcuffing of T.H. was justified, a question about which the Court has considerable doubt, the scope of the seizure—that is, the handcuffing of the child for forty-five minutes, even after his parents arrived at the school and were present in the room with him—was unreasonable. There is no evidence in the record whatsoever that indicates that the extended period of time during which T.H. remained in handcuffs was justified. There is no evidence that T.H. continued to be verbally aggressive or defiant or that he gave any indication that he would flee. Furthermore, T.L.O. specifically requires that the search (or seizure, in this instance) not be “excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction.” T.L.O., 469 U.S. at 342. Again, T.H. was age eight when this incident occurred, and in the second grade. He was a startlingly young child to be handcuffed at all, much less for forty-five minutes, with the stated intention of being taken to juvenile detention and prosecuted for misdemeanor assault. In the context of the age of this child and his alleged infraction, the Court finds that Officer Tollett’s extended handcuffing of T.H. was unreasonable. [xiv]
Thus, the court held under this standard, the SRO also violated the Fourth Amendment. However, this case does not rise to the level of binding case law, as it is district court case, but it is illustrative of the different legal standards that can be applied.
Summary of School Use of Force Legal Standards:
There are two standards that can apply, both from the United States Supreme Court, in determining whether a use of force in the school setting is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.
The first legal standard comes from New Jersey v. T.L.O. Under this standard, a use of force by a school official or SRO acting in conjunction with a school official, must:
- be justified at its inception, meaning supported by reasonable suspicion, and (2) be reasonable in scope in light of the nature of the violation and the age and sex of the student.
The second legal standard that could be applied comes from Graham v. Connor. With the standard, the court will consider:
- the severity of the crime at issue,
- whether the suspect posed an immediate threat to the officer or others, and
- whether the suspect was actively resisting or attempting to evade arrest by flight.
The standard set forth in T.L.O. is considered more lenient to officers and school officials as it was first decided by the Supreme Court to strike a balance between constitutional rights and the need for school official to maintain a proper and safe educational environment.
Note: Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions. As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal adviser regarding questions on specific cases. This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.
[i] 458 F.3d 1295 (11th Cir. 2006)
[ii] Id. at 1300
[iii] Id. at 1301
[iv] 469 U.S. 325 (1985)
[v] Gray, 458 F.3d at 1304
[vi] 392 U.S. 1 (1968)
[vii] Gray, 458 F.3d at 1305-1306
[viii] Id. at 1306
[x] Id. at 1307
[xi] 490 U.S. 386 (1989)
[xii] Case No. 2:13-cv-15 (M.D. Tenn., 2014)
[xiii] Id. at 16
[xiv] Id. at 20-12