Michigan Seclusion Case Demonstrates Fry’s Limits on IDEA Exhaustion

When the Supreme Court issued its decision in Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, 137 S.Ct. 743 (2017) two years ago, many experts believed that it would result in an increase in court claims against school districts. This is a reasonable interpretation, since Fry put plaintiffs in school litigation in the drivers seat. Under the holding in Fry, students and parents could, via careful pleading to avoid the IDEA, chart a course to sue in court for damages without first exhausting administrative remedies by seeking a due process hearing. While the ubiquitous “floodgates of litigation” may not yet have fully opened, a new Michigan case shows that, by and large, early assessments of Fry’s impact appear to be correct.

person wearing bandages
The student in Wadley won the right to sue in court for an injured hand but failed to prove school officials caused the injury by violating her rights.

In Wadley v. Hazel Park Community Schools, 2019 U.S.Dist. LEXIS 210377 (E.D. Mich. 2019), the Eastern District of Michigan found that the IDEA exhaustion mandate did not bar a disabled student’s claims. In that case, a student sought damages for alleged violations of her federal constitutional rights under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 and state law for injuries that occurred while school staff used restraint and seclusion techniques to control her behavior. While the school officials asserted that the child’s claims were barred by the IDEA since she had not first sought a due process hearing, the court disagreed. First, the court reasoned that, although the child was found eligible for an IEP after the incident at issue, she was not served under the IDEA at that time. Second, the court analyzed the complaint and determined that the student had not alleged that she was injured due to a denial of FAPE or violation of the IDEA. As a result, the court held that, under Fry, IDEA due process procedures would not redress the physical injuries (a broken finger and laceration) for which she sought compensation. Therefore, the court held it could not dismiss the suit outright and had to address the merits.

While the student won the right to have her claims decided on the merits, she ultimately did not prevail. The court granted summary judgment on the constitutional and state law tort claims, since the proof showed that the school staff’s behavior did not offend either the 4th or 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution. In particular, the court found that the complaint allegations that (1) the student was placed unsupervised in seclusion for hours at a time; and (2) restraint procedures were used needlessly or in contravention of regulations to be unsubstantiated. Consequently, it granted summary judgment in favor of the school district and its employees.

In short, Wadley shows us that Fry made it easier for disabled students to bring claims for damages directly to court. Getting into court and getting past summary judgment, however, are two different matters. If students choose to sue directly in court, they still must be prepared to prove their allegations or their claims will fail.

KY School District Sued for Alleged Unclothed Search of Middle School Student

Earlier this month, a middle school student filed suit in federal court against a Kentucky school district for an allegedly unconstitutional “strip” search. The suit alleges that the student was escorted to the counselor’s office, asked to remove clothes down to her underwear, and then searched. The facts precipitating the search are not clearly identified in the Complaint, however, so it remains unclear what evidence the alleged search was intended to reveal.

There is a well-established body of law in the Sixth Circuit as to searches of students. Because public school officials are state actors, two Supreme Court decisions make clear that students enjoy Fourth Amendment protections from unreasonable searches at school. The first, New Jersey v. TLO set the standard that a search of a student is permissible if it is reasonable at its inception (i.e. based on an individualized suspicion that the search will produce evidence that the student has violated a school rule or the law) and reasonable in scope (i.e. not overly intrusive under the circumstances). The second, Safford Unified Sch. Dist. #1 v. Redding, addressed unclothed searches specifically and found that a search of a student’s person, which involved removing outer clothing and moving underclothes in front of a school nurse, was unjustified since prior searches of the student’s outer clothes and belongings produced no contraband.

Furthermore, Sixth Circuit authority has suggested that school officials who conduct unclothed on students without proper justification or of unreasonable scope may be subjected to individual liability. As public officials, school employees are entitled to the defense of qualified immunity (or qualified official immunity under Kentucky law) on claims asserted against them so long as their conduct does not violate clearly established law. Yet, as early as 2005, the Sixth Circuit in Beard v. Whitmore Lake School District, held that strip searches of students without appropriate justification violate clearly established law.

Given this, many Kentucky school districts have policies expressly prohibiting strip searches of students. The Complaint in this action alleges that the District failed to train and supervise its staff with respect to student searches. Nevertheless, discovery will likely be necessary to determine if the facts alleged as to the search are accurate and what policies, procedures, and training the district adopted for its staff.