Teacher Assaulted By Student Did Not State Constitutional Violation

The high school physical science teacher also served as a lunchroom supervisor, and in that role tried to maintain order and discourage student fights. While the school district generally instructed teachers to intervene in fights if they felt they could do so safely, the district did not require teachers to intervene. Teachers were not subject to discipline for failing to break up a fight.

On December 4, 2015, a fight broke out during the lunch period and the teacher attempted to break it up. One of the students in the fight responded by attacking the teacher and seriously injuring him. After the beating, the student asked onlookers, “Did you see me slam that white-ass teacher?” The teacher required medical treatment for his injuries. The school district paid for the man’s medical bills, and he received workers’ compensation benefits.

The teacher filed suit against the district, the superintendent, and an assistant superintendent.  He alleged (1) negligence and negligent supervision by the school district and its employees, and (2) violations of his substantive due process right to a safe work environment.

Specifically, the teacher alleged that school administrators deliberately ignored student misconduct and created an environment that became increasingly dangerous to students and teachers. He submitted testimony from other teachers that school administrators, aware of previous racial disparity in discipline rates, intentionally created a race-conscious policy for student discipline. Under the policy, minority students were treated leniently, even in cases involving violence, which had the desired result of decreasing reportable discipline disparity. The teachers testified that student misbehavior increased when students realized they would not be disciplined for misconduct—even violent misconduct. The teacher claimed further that his assault was the direct result of school administration policy regarding minority student misconduct.

The trial court granted judgment in favor of the district defendants and the teacher appealed.  The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. It first determined that the negligence claims were preempted by the state’s workers’ compensation laws that provide a remedy under these circumstances.

Additionally, the court of appeals held that the teacher failed to establish a constitutional violation on the part of the superintendent and assistant superintendent.  To plead a violation of substantive due process, the teacher had to allege actions which “violated one or more fundamental constitutional rights” and were “shocking to the contemporary conscience.” According to the appeals court, the defendants’ alleged actions regarding school policies did not rise to the level of a constitutional violation.

Courts have stated that to “shock the conscience the defendants’ conduct must be so severe … so disproportionate to the need presented, and … so inspired by malice or sadism rather than a merely careless or unwise excess of zeal that it amounted to a brutal and inhumane abuse of official power literally shocking to the conscience.”  The teacher, in this case, failed to allege conduct meeting this standard and, therefore, his constitutional claims were without merit. The court of appeals upheld the judgment in favor of the district defendants. The case is Ekblad v. Indep. Sch. Dist. No. 625, No. 17-2359, 2018 WL 3768429 (8th Cir. Aug. 8, 2018).

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