Supreme Court

Louisiana Mother of Autistic Child Hit by Teacher Files Supreme Court Petition

School officials in three states are effectively immune from lawsuits over excessive corporal punishment. A Louisiana mother is asking the Supreme Court to step in.


Sonia Book's autistic daughter was hit by a public school teacher who later pleaded guilty to battering two other autistic students. Book tried to sue, but she happens to live in Louisiana, one of three states where school officials are essentially immune from lawsuits for excessive corporal punishment.

Now Book is asking the Supreme Court to step in. 

The Institute for Justice, a libertarian-leaning public interest law firm, filed a petition to the Supreme Court this week on behalf of Book, asking the Court to resolve an issue that it says has made corporal punishment of children categorically exempt from constitutional scrutiny in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, which covers Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

"If the school system isn't going to hold the people who hit my daughter accountable, then I hoped the courts would, but so far that hasn't happened," Book said in an Institute for Justice press release. "It makes no sense to me that people who hit your kids can get away with it if they work for the school. That's who my daughter should be able to trust, not fear."  

In 2020, Book's 11-year-old daughter, who has nonverbal autism, was hit by school employees in the Jefferson Parish school district on at least three separate occasions for acting out. In one instance, the girl kicked in the direction of a teacher without making contact. In another, she pinched a teacher's aide.

Book filed a lawsuit against the teacher and several school officials in 2021, arguing that the school district and employees violated her daughter's rights. However, both a U.S. district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit held that the school officials were exempt from Book's claims under Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act, which created a right to sue government officials acting under the color of law for constitutional violations.

As the Institute for Justice describes in its petition for writ of certiorari, the 5th Circuit is an outlier. It's the only federal circuit that immunizes school officials from civil rights lawsuits for corporal punishment, as long as that force is plausibly related to maintaining classroom order. Under a binding precedent in the circuit, "as long as the state provides an adequate remedy, a public school student cannot state a claim for denial of substantive due process through excessive corporal punishment."

All other nine circuits in the country allow such claims to proceed under either the Fourth Amendment's excessive force provision or the 14th Amendment's Due Process Clause.

That 5th Circuit precedent has led to federal judges dismissing lawsuits where, for example, a student with disabilities was tased, or a 5-year-old boy was allegedly slammed to the ground and dragged to the principal's office by a school police officer. The 5th Circuit has only recognized excessive violence against students in cases where the abuse was cartoonishly grotesque and devoid of any pedagogical justification, such as tying a student to a chair for two days.

"The Fifth Circuit is way out of step with the rest of the nation's courts on this issue, and we're asking the Supreme Court to right this legal wrong," Institute for Justice senior attorney Patrick Jaicomo said in a press release. "The absolute protection the Fifth Circuit has created for abusive teachers and school administrators is greater than the overly-generous immunities that already extend to police and every other public employee."

Meanwhile, the teacher who struck Book's daughter was not disciplined. She transferred to another school. In September, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that the teacher pleaded guilty to simple battery of two other autistic siblings. A related lawsuit against the teacher accused her of slapping the children, segregating them from nondisabled children, and calling them "feral kids" and "filthy little things."

Reason has reported extensively on state violence against children with disabilities. In Florida, school-age children—disproportionately those with disabilities—are frequently restrained by police and involuntarily committed to psychiatric hospitals for throwing tantrums in the classroom. Last year, a Kansas sheriff's deputy hogtied and tased an 12-year-old autistic boy. In North Carolina in 2018, a school resource officer handcuffed a 7-year-old autistic boy and pinned him face-down on the ground for nearly 40 minutes while taunting him.

The Institute for Justice is asking the Supreme Court to resolve whether students' excessive violence claims are cognizable under Section 1983 and whether those claims should proceed under the Fourth Amendment or 14th Amendment.