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Tenth Circuit dismisses claim school timeouts violate Constitution

[JURIST] The US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit [official website] on Thursday dismissed [opinion text] a claim brought by the mother of a special education student that her child's Fourth and Fourteenth amendment [text] rights were violated when he was given "timeouts." Jennifer Couture sued the Albuquerque Public Schools (APS) [official website] and three individual school officials for placing her child, referred to as M.C. by the court, in a secluded room in order to control his behavior. M.C. suffers from severe mental and emotional health problems, and in 2002 he was placed in a special education program designed to control his repeated outbursts. The Court ruled that the district court erred in not granting qualified immunity to the three individual defendants:

Temporarily removing M.C., given the threat he often posed to the emotional, psychological, and physical safety of the students and teachers, was eminently reasonable...We therefore find that there was no Fourth Amendment violation here, and that the three individual defendants are entitled to qualified immunity on this claim.

The district court found that the timeouts were designed both to punish M.C., and to educate him. Under either rationale, there has been no constitutional violation...To determine what process is due, courts must balance: (1) the private interests that will be affected by the official action; (2) the risk of erroneous deprivation; and (3) the burden on the government from additional procedural requirements... We are reluctant to limit a teacher’s ability to manage her classroom by requiring her to give the student a “hearing” of some form.
Originally Ms. Couture had filed an administrative action against APS and the individual defendants based on violations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) [text], the Rehabilitation Act [text, DOC], and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) [official website]. These claims were dismissed and Ms. Couture appealed to the Federal District Court of New Mexico [official website], where she added the claims that her son's constitutional rights were violated.

In 2005, the US Supreme Court [official website, JURIST news archive] ruled [JURIST report] that parents who challenge special education programs for not meeting their children's needs must bear the burden of proving the programs' inadequacies, and that school officials need not meet any burden of proof in the matter. In 2004, President George W. Bush signed IDEA [JURIST report], legislation designed to ensure that students with disabilities would have special education teachers with the necessary skills and training. Bush was subsequently criticized for underfunding the related programs.

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