Use Of Physical Force on Students

In recent years, much attention has been drawn to the appropriateness and/or desirability of using physical force on students, whether it be in the context of administering corporal punishment, breaking up a fight between students, or restraining a disruptive student. Unfortunately, a number of teachers and administrators have faced allegations of wrongdoing, and even criminal charges, as a result of the use of physical force on students. The question of whether or not to use physical force, and if so, under what circumstances, is a policy issue that all school districts should address.

Corporal Punishment

Corporal punishment is the most common form of physical force used with students. In South Carolina, State law still provides that school districts may provide for the administration of corporal punishment that it deems "just and proper." However, many districts have chosen to abandon corporal punishment or, if corporal punishment is to be utilized, provide specific procedures that must be followed. These procedures often include requiring that the punishment be carried out by an administrator of the same sex, that there be a staff member witness, and that parents be given the option of indicating in advance whether they wish to have corporal punishment administered to their child. It is important to note that if certain procedures are made a part of policy or procedure, they must be followed in every situation. Even when these procedures are followed, however, it is likely that some parent will accuse the administrator of using excessive or undue force and file criminal charges against the administrator or bring suit against the administrator and/or the district.

Because corporal punishment is defined broadly, and in some board policies as "use of physical force for disciplinary purposes," restraining a disruptive student may fall within the parameters of corporal punishment policies and procedures. As a result, a teacher who attempts to restrain a disruptive student in the classroom could be in violation of the district's corporal punishment policy if the policy's implementation procedures are not followed. In other words, if the policy requires that only an administrator can implement corporal punishment, a teacher who restrains a disruptive student could be in violation of the policy. Of greater concern, however, is the parent who files criminal charges or bring suit as a result of the pain, injury, or mental anguish the student allegedly suffered as a result of the teacher's actions.

Most corporal punishment policies do provide for the use of physical force outside of the required procedures whenever there is a threat of immediate harm to others or to the student him/herself. The most common such situation would be the teacher who comes upon a fight in progress between two students. Again, however, there is the likelihood that parents will accuse the employee who broke up the fight of causing or contributing to the injuries received by their child.

In cases where a district employee has faced civil suit or criminal charges for attempting to restrain a disruptive student or to stop a fight between two students, the employee is normally successful in avoiding liability or conviction. However, the expense, aggravation and negative publicity for the employee and the district, in having to defend the employee's actions in court, are aspects worth considering when determining the parameters of a district's policies and procedures regarding the use of physical force. A recent Georgia case illustrates how a teacher's physical contact with a student, in an effort to get the student's attention, resulted in a suit against the teacher and the principal which was appealed to the Georgia Court of Appeals. In the case of Daniels v. Gordon, the parent of the student alleged that the teacher had choked and restrained the student, in violation of the corporal punishment policy, causing him to suffer physical and emotional injuries. The teacher claimed to have grasped the student's face to turn his head to get him to look at and listen to her. There was no evidence of physical injury. Fortunately for the teacher and the principal, the lower court and the court of appeals held in their favor. The Court of Appeals concluded that the teacher's conduct did not constitute corporal punishment because her actions were intended to get the student's attention, not to "punish," and thus did not meet the definition of corporal punishment.

Negative Consequences

While this case had a favorable outcome, the potential for graver consequenses was certainly present. First, the student could have been injured had he jerked away while the teacher was grasping his face, particularly if the teacher had long fingernails. Additionally, the student could have had a medical condition that caused him to bruise more easily or suffer some other form of injury from physical contact. Finally, the teacher, although well-meaning, could have been more emotional than she realized because of her frustration with the student, and as a result, could have used more force than she intended. If the student had in fact suffered physical injury, the teacher could have faced assault and battery charges. As a result, it is becoming more and more advisable to avoid use of what can be referred to as "reactionary force." Schools would be well-advised to consider training staff in other forms of classroom management so as to avoid unintended injuries and unpleasant lawsuits.

With regard to breaking up a student fight, not only could an employee be accused of causing injury to one or more of the students in the fight, but the employee could also be injured in the process. Conversely, an employee who takes no action to prevent or address a student fight could be accused of negligent supervision. Clearly, districts need to have policies and procedures in place for handling fights and students who are out of control. Furthermore, all school staff should have a clear understanding of what they are expected to do in such situations. It is important to note that whatever procedures are put in place, they should apply equally to all staff, whatever the height, weight, gender, or strength of the staff person. School staff should not be placed in the position of having to judge the likelihood of physical intervention being successful. Accordingly, it may be advisable for districts to adopt policies which require that staff members have specific training in physical restraint. This training is normally available as a one-half to one-day session and is offered through various organizations and agencies, such as the Department of Mental Health. Because it may not be feasible to have all employees trained, those who have not been trained should have alternative procedures to follow, which include the means to obtain assistance from someone who is trained. If an employee follows established procedures and/or implements specific restraint techniques, he/she is much more likely to avoid liability.

District policies concerning corporal punishment, use of "reactionary" force, and student restraint should be adopted which are clear and unambiguous. Of equal importance is the need for all staff to be informed and trained as to the procedures they are to follow in such situations. Liability can be avoided or significantly reduced if employees are informed, trained and acting at all times in compliance with district policies and procedures.