On August 1, 2019, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals decided K.W.P. v. Kansas City Public Schools et al.[i], which is instructive regarding the handcuffing of young, disorderly students at school.
In K.W.P., a seven-year-old boy attended elementary school in the Kansas City Public School district (KCPS). This child had a history of physically resisting the principal, trying to fight other students, and disrupting class. On April 30, 2014, the day the incident that gave rise to this suit occurred, K.W.P. alleged that another student antagonized him to the point that he got extremely frustrated, such that he yelled at the other student and tried to physically confront him. According to K.W.P., the teacher yelled at him to sit down and that made him more angry. He admitted that he did not comply.
At this point, school staff asked the school resource officer, Officer Craddock, to go to K.W.P.’s class to assist with an “out of control” student. Officer Craddock entered the classroom and asked K.W.P. to go to the hallway. K.W.P. did not initially comply. After asking again, K.W.P. stood up pushed his chair angrily in a “negative” way and went into the hallway. The officer told K.W.P. that he was not in trouble and told him to follow him to the office. K.W.P. admittedly refused and attempted to walk away from the officer. Eventually, the officer grabbed K.W.P. by his left wrist to keep him from walking away and K.W.P. began screaming and crying and trying to jerk away from the officer’s grasp. The officer told K.W.P. ,“If you don’t calm down, I’m going to have to put the cuffs on.”[ii] K.W.P. then grabbed onto a handrail in the hallway, and the officer handcuffed him with his hands behind his back.
The officer walked K.W.P. to the front office where he was told to sit in a chair. K.W.P. complied and did not attempt to leave. A parent was called and K.W.P., remained handcuffed for fifteen minutes until his parent arrived, at which time the officer removed the handcuffs. The principal saw K.W.P. in handcuffs and did not tell the officer to remove them.
K.W.P. filed suit against the KCPS, the officer and the principal for excessive force under the Fourth Amendment for the initial handcuffing and for allowing him to remain handcuffed for fifteen minutes in the front office after he had calmed down. The defendants in the case filed motions for summary judgment and qualified immunity and the district court denied the motions. The defendants appealed to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.
On appeal, K.W.P. did not argue that his initial removal from the classroom violated the Fourth Amendment. Rather, he argued that his initial handcuffing and remaining in handcuffs for fifteen minutes after he calmed down violated the Fourth Amendment.
The court of appeals noted that there are two possible ways to analyze an excessive force case that involves a student. This is because excessive force cases are founded in the Fourth Amendment, and the typical standard for evaluating an excessive force case is “objective reasonableness” under Graham v. Connor.[iii] As a review, under Graham, an officer should consider (1) the severity of the crime at issue, (2) whether the suspect posed a threat to the officer or others, and (3) whether the suspect was actively resisting or attempting to evade arrest by flight.
Additionally, in a school setting there is another possible legal standard that could apply. This standard is also founded in the Fourth Amendment and explained by the Supreme Court in New Jersey v. T.L.O.[iv] Regarding the T.L.O. standard, the court stated
The Supreme Court has previously held that “the legality of a search of a student . . . depend[s] simply on the reasonableness, under all the circumstances, of the search.” New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325, 341 (1985) (involving school official’s search of a student). A two-fold inquiry applies in determining whether such search is reasonable: “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 the interference in the first place.'” Id. (ellipsis in original) (quoting Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 20 (1968)). This standard balances “the privacy interests of schoolchildren with the substantial need of teachers and administrators for freedom to maintain order in the schools.” Id. It “neither unduly burden[s] the efforts of school authorities to maintain order in their schools nor authorize[s] unrestrained intrusions upon the privacy of schoolchildren.” Id. at 342-43.[v]
The Eighth Circuit then noted that they have not previously decided which standard to use in a case such as this. They also noted that the various federal circuits are split as to which standard is used. The court then stated that they don’t need to decide which standard to use based on K.W.P.’s case because the results would be the same whether they used the Graham standard or the T.L.O. standard, particularly that neither Officer Craddock nor Principal Wallace violated K.W.P.’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from excessive force.
The court then set out to analyze whether the officer and principal violated the Fourth Amendment as to (1) the initial handcuffing and (2) allowing K.W.P. to remain handcuffed for fifteen minutes.
Regarding the initial handcuffing, the court noted that K.W.P. was disruptive in the classroom and wanted to engage in a physical confrontation with another student. He initially refused to leave the class. When he went in the hallway with the officer, he was angry, screaming, crying, and trying to walk away from the officer. He refused to walk to the front office with the officer. When K.W.P. tried to walk away the officer grabbed his wrist and K.W.P. tried to jerk away from his grasp and then grabbed a handrail. At this point the officer handcuffed K.W.P. The Eighth Circuit held that
In applying the objective reasonableness standard to the undisputed facts, a reasonable officer could have concluded that K.W.P.’s admitted conduct constituted “an act of violent resistance.[vi]
The court then examined the fifteen minutes where K.W.P. remained in handcuffs in the front office, after he had calmed down. The court noted that while he had remained calm and did not attempt to leave, he had, moments earlier, been very resistive, wanting to fight, screaming, trying to jerk away from the officer, and grabbing a handrail. The court stated
K.W.P. had actively resisted Officer Craddock just prior to arriving to the front office. A reasonable officer could conclude that, based on K.W.P.’s recent resistance, keeping him in handcuffs for 15 minutes until a parent arrived was a reasonable course of action and was necessary to prevent K.W.P. from trying to leave and posing harm to himself.[vii]
Thus, the court held the officer did not violate the Fourth Amendment by K.W.P.’s fifteen minutes of additional time in handcuffs. Similarly, because Principal Wallace had had a similar altercation with K.W.P. two months earlier, and since the officer acted reasonably the court held that she also did not violate K.W.P’s rights under the Fourth Amendment.
The court then stated
[W]e hold that, applying either the Graham or T.L.O. standard and viewing the facts in the light most favorable to K.W.P., neither Officer Craddock nor Principal Wallace violated K.W.P.’s right to be free from unreasonable seizure and excessive force and are therefore entitled to qualified immunity on this claim.[viii]
Additionally, the court noted that, even if the officer and principal were found to have violated the Fourth Amendment, they would still be entitled to qualified immunity from suit because the law was not “clearly established” such that a reasonable officer or reasonable school official would have been on notice that their actions were wrong (for the sake of argument) in K.W.P.’s incident.
Lastly, the court addressed the claim against the KCPS. In order for a school board or other government entity to have liability, the plaintiff must first show that there was an underlying constitutional violation. In this case, the court noted that neither the officer nor the principal violated the Fourth Amendment. Since there was no underlying constitutional violation, this claim fails and the school district is entitled to summary judgment.
Therefore, the Eighth Circuit reversed the decision of the district court and ordered the case dismissed.
[i] No. 17-3602 (8th Cir. Decided August 1, 2019)
[ii] Id. at 5
[iii] 490 U.S. 386 (1989)
[iv] 469 U.S. 325 (1985)
[v] K.W.P. at 11-12 (emphasis added)
[vi] Id. at 20
[vii] Id. at 21-22
[viii] Id. at 22