A 17-year-old student was diagnosed with "an intellectual disability" and "an emotional disturbance" that impacted his daily functioning, ability to communicate, control his emotions, and access regular educational services without accommodations. He was around 6 feet, 2 inches tall and weighed 250 pounds.
One day, he and another student finished their class assignment and were playing a card game. After some verbal taunting from his friend, the student became angry and punched the friend in the chest before storming out of the classroom.
The student tried to enter his "chill out" room — a designated classroom that the school permitted him to use, under his accommodations, when he needed to regulate his emotions. Finding the room occupied by another student, he became even more frustrated. He threw a desk across the room before kicking the door and heading toward the school exit. He was stopped in the breezeway by a security guard, an athletic coach and the assistant principal.
Soon after, the school resource officer arrived on the scene. The SRO admitted that he probably knew the student was special needs, although he was not aware of his specific accommodations. The SRO did not witness the earlier incident in which the student punched his classmate but said that he had previously witnessed the student leave class, curse at teachers and punch the concrete hallway walls. The SRO watched from a short distance away as the student paced in front of the exit door, explaining to staff that he wanted to walk home so he could calm down.
The security guard attempted to verbally de-escalate the situation by asking what happened and suggesting that the student go to his designated classroom to calm down. The student only became more agitated, responding with profanities. The student attempted to leave the campus and pushed against the exit door and the security guard attempted to hold the door shut to keep him inside.
Both the SRO and the security guard told the student to calm down several times. The SRO threatened to tase the student, and he then began screaming that he wanted to go home and again attempted to exit the building. The SRO then fired his taser. The student screamed and fell to his knees and the SRO continued to tase him for approximately 15 seconds, tasing the student in the back even after he was lying face down on the ground and not struggling.
As a result of the tasing,
the student urinated, defecated and vomited on himself. The SRO commanded
the student to put his hands behind his back while another officer
handcuffed him. School officials called the school nurse and subsequently paramedics to treat the student. They then contacted the student's mother.
Following this incident, the
student's mother kept him home from school for several months because she
feared for his safety at school and because the tasing caused him intense
anxiety and PTSD. The mother filed a federal lawsuit that included
constitutional claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 along with claims under Title II
of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation
The school district requested
that the federal lawsuit be dismissed for many reasons, but the primary
question considered by the court of appeals was whether the SRO intentionally
discriminated against the student based on his disability or failed to
accommodate his disability.
With regard to the allegation
that the SRO intentionally discriminated against the student, the court
noted that the tasing was arguably excessive. However, it concluded that
it was not indifference or hostility toward the student's disability
that motivated the SRO when he tased the student, but a desire to keep
him safe inside the school because of the vulnerabilities caused by his
disability. The court noted that the mother failed to produce evidence
that the SRO would not have tased such a non-disabled student. Therefore, there
was no evidence to show that the student was discriminated against or treated
differently than a non-disabled student.
The court then found
that the failure-to-accommodate claim failed as well. While the SRO
admitted that he had prior knowledge of the student's disability,
there is no evidence that he had notice of its resulting limitations or
necessary accommodations. He was not present at the meetings
regarding limitations of and/or accommodations for the
student's disability. Nor were the limitations or accommodations
"open, obvious and apparent" to the SRO. In fact, he witnessed the
failure of staff's attempts to verbally de-escalate the situation. There
was no evidence that the SRO was aware or should have been aware of a
further accommodation that would have calmed the student down.
The court emphasized that the
SRO's use of a taser in this situation was poor judgment, especially
after the student had ceased struggling. However, Section 504 of the
Rehabilitation Act and Title II of the ADA are not always the most appropriate
way to address "all unreasonable, inappropriate,
unprofessional, and/or unduly harsh conduct by public agents."
The court of appeals dismissed