Ingraham v. Wright v. 1976

Citation51 L.Ed.2d 711,97 S.Ct. 1401,430 U.S. 651
Decision Date19 April 1977
Docket NumberNo. 75-6527,75-6527
PartiesJames INGRAHAM, by his mother and next friend, Eloise Ingraham, et al., Petitioners, v. Willie J. WRIGHT, I, et al. Argued Nov. 2-3, 1976
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Petitioners, pupils in a Dade County, Fla., junior high school, filed this action in Federal District Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981-1988 for damages and injunctive and declaratory relief against respondent school officials, alleging that petitioners and other students had been subjected to disciplinary corporal punishment in violation of their constitutional rights. The Florida statute then in effect authorized corporal punishment after the teacher had consulted with the principal or teacher in charge of the school, specifying that the punishment was not to be "degrading or unduly severe." A School Board regulation contained specific directions and limitations, authorizing punishment administered to a recalcitrant student's buttocks with a wooden paddle. The evidence showed that the paddling of petitioners was exceptionally harsh. The District Court granted respondents' motion to dismiss the complaint, finding no basis for constitutional relief. The Court of Appeals affirmed. Held:

1. The Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause of the Eighth Amendment does not apply to disciplinary corporal punishment in public schools. Pp. 664-671.

(a) The history of the Eighth Amendment and the decisions of this Court make it clear that the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment was designed to protect those convicted of crime. Pp. 664-668.

(b) There is no need to wrench the Eighth Amendment from its historical context and extend it to public school disciplinary practices. The openness of the public school and its supervision by the community afford significant safeguards against the kinds of abuses from which that Amendment protects convicted criminals. These safeguards are reinforced by the legal constraints of the common law, whereby any punishment going beyond that which is reasonably necessary for the proper education and discipline of the child may result in both civil and criminal liability. Pp. 668-671.

2. The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment does not require notice and hearing prior to imposition of corporal punishment as that practice is authorized and limited by the common law. Pp. 672-682.

(a) Liberty within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment is implicated where public school authorities, acting under color of state law, deliberately punish a child for misconduct by restraint and infliction of appreciable physical pain. Freedom from bodily restraint and punishment is within the liberty interest in personal security that has historically been protected from state deprivation without due process of law. Pp. 672-674.

(b) Under the longstanding accommodation between the child's interest in personal security and the traditional common-law privilege, there can be no deprivation of substantive rights as long as the corporal punishment remains within the limits of that privilege. The child nonetheless has a strong interest in procedural safeguards that minimize the risk of wrongful punishment and provide for the resolution of disputed questions of justification. Pp. 675-676.

(c) The Florida scheme, considered in light of the openness of the school environment, affords significant protection against unjustified corporal punishment of schoolchildren. The teacher and principal must exercise prudence and restraint when they decide that corporal punishment is necessary for disciplinary purposes. If the punishment is later found to be excessive, they may be held liable in damages or be subject to criminal penalties. Where the State has thus preserved what "has always been the law of the land," United States v. Barnett, 376 U.S. 681, 692, 84 S.Ct. 984, 990, 12 L.Ed.2d 23, the case for administrative safeguards is significantly less compelling than it would otherwise be. Pp. 676-680.

(d) Imposing additional administrative safeguards as a constitutional requirement would significantly intrude into the area of educational responsibility that lies primarily with the public school authorities. Prior procedural safeguards require a diversion of educational resources, and school authorities may abandon corporal punishment as a disciplinary measure rather than incur the burdens of complying with procedural requirements. The incremental benefit of invoking the Constitution to impose prior notice and a hearing cannot justify the costs. Pp. 680-682.

525 F.2d 909, affirmed.

Bruce S. Rogow, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., for petitioners.

Frank A. Howard, Jr., Miami, Fla., for respondents.

Mr. Justice POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents questions concerning the use of corporal punishment in public schools: First, whether the paddling of students as a means of maintaining school discipline constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment; and, second, to the extent that paddling is constitutionally permissible, whether the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires prior notice and an opportunity to be heard.


Petitioners James Ingraham and Roosevelt Andrews filed the complaint in this case on January 7, 1971, in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida.1 At the time both were enrolled in the Charles R. Drew Junior High School in Dade County, Fla., Ingraham in the eighth grade and Andrews in the ninth. The complaint contained three counts, each alleging a separate cause of action for deprivation of constitutional rights, under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981-1988. Counts one and two were individual actions for damages by Ingraham and Andrews based on paddling incidents that allegedly occurred in October 1970 at Drew Junior High School. Count three was a class action for declaratory and injunctive relief filed on behalf of all students in the Dade County schools.2 Named as defendants in all counts were respondents Willie J. Wright (principal at Drew Junior High School), Lemmie Deliford (an assistant principal), Solomon Barnes (an assistant to the principal), and Edward L. Whigham (superintendent of the Dade County School System).3

Petitioners presented their evidence at a week-long trial before the District Court. At the close of petitioners' case, respondents moved for dismissal of count three "on the ground that upon the facts and the law the plaintiff has shown no right to relief," Fed.Rule Civ.Proc. 41(b), and for a ruling that the evidence would be insufficient to go to a jury on counts one and two.4 The District Court granted the motion as to all three counts, and dismissed the complaint without hearing evidence on behalf of the school authorities. App. 142-150.

Petitioners' evidence may be summarized briefly. In the 1970-1971 school year many of the 237 schools in Dade County used corporal punishment as a means of maintaining discipline pursuant to Florida legislation and a local School Board regulation.5 The statute then in effect authorized limited corporal punishment by negative inference, proscribing punishment which was "degrading or unduly severe" or which was inflicted without prior consultation with the principal or the teacher in charge of the school. Fla.Stat.Ann. § 232.27 (1961).6 The regulation, Dade County School Board Policy 5144, contained explicit directions and limitations.7 The authorized punishment consisted of paddling the recalcitrant student on the buttocks with a flat wooden paddle measuring less than two feet long, three to four inches wide, and about one-half inch thick. The normal punishment was limited to one to five "licks" or blows with the paddle and resulted in no apparent physical injury to the student. School authorities viewed corporal punishment as a less drastic means of discipline than suspension or expulsion. Contrary to the procedural requirements of the statute and regulation, teachers often paddled students on their own authority without first consulting the principal.8

Petitioners focused on Drew Junior High School, the school in which both Ingraham and Andrews were enrolled in the fall of 1970. In an apparent reference to Drew, the District Court found that "(t)he instances of punishment which could be characterized as severe, accepting the students' testimony as credible, took place in one junior high school." App. 147. The evidence, consisting mainly of the testimony of 16 students, suggests that the regime at Drew was exceptionally harsh. The testimony of Ingraham and Andrews, in support of their individual claims for damages, is illustrative. Because he was slow to respond to his teacher's instructions, Ingraham was subjected to more than 20 licks with a paddle while being held over a table in the principal's office. The paddling was so severe that he suffered a hematoma 9 requiring medical attention and keeping him out of school for several days.10 Andrews was paddled several times for minor infractions. On two occasions he was struck on his arms, once depriving him of the full use of his arm for a week.11 The District Court made no findings on the credibility of the students' testimony. Rather, assuming their testimony to be credible, the court found no constitutional basis for relief. With respect to count three, the class action, the court concluded that the punishment authorized and practiced generally in the county schools violated no constitutional right. Id., at 143, 149. With respect to counts one and two, the individual damages actions, the court concluded that while corporal punishment could in some cases violate the Eighth Amendment, in this case a jury could not lawfully find "the elements of severity, arbitrary infliction, unacceptability in terms ofcontemporary standards, or gross disproportion which are necessary to bring 'punishment' to the constitutional level of 'cruel and unusual punishment.' " Id., at 143.

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