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Ingraham v. Wright

430 U.S. 651 (1977)

    Facts : According to students at Drew Junior High School in Dade County, Florida during the 1970-71 school year assistant principal Lemmie Deliford displayed brass knuckles as he patrolled the corridors. Solomon Barnes, another assistant to the principal, was said to sport both brass knuckles and a large wooden paddle at the school. Fourteen year old James Ingraham was slow to leave the auditorium stage he was held face down on a table by Deliford and Barnes while the principal, Willie J. Wright, hit him on the buttocks at least twenty times with the paddle. That day Ingraham's mother took him to a hospital where painful bruises on his backside were diagnosed as a hematoma.

    The doctor prescribed ice packs, pain pills, sleeping pills, and a laxative and advised Ingraham to rest at home for at least a week. More than a week after the beating, another doctor examined him and found that the hematoma was still "swollen, tender, and purplish in color" and was discharging fluid. The doctor prescribed rest at home for an additional seventy-two hours. Ingraham could not sit comfortably for about three weeks.

    Roosevelt Adams was paddled on about ten different occasions during the year. In a bathroom, he was paddled by Barnes on the leg, arm, back and neck. A second incident for an infraction, which Adams claims he did not commit, Wright hit him on the wrist. A doctor prescribed pain pills and an ice pack for the resulting swelling. Adams could not use the arm for about a week.

    Daniel Lee, was asked by Barnes to bend down and "get a little piece of the board." Barnes struck Lee on the hand four or five times; the hand was fractured.

    For the infraction of standing up in the study hall to wipe some foreign matter off the seat of his chair, Rodney Williams was struck on the head and back with a paddle and whipped with a belt. Williams was out of school for about a week to undergo surgery to remove a lump on the side of his head caused by the beating. Further beatings by Deliford and Wright caused Williams to cough blood and receive treatment at a hospital.

    Issue: Does the paddling of a student violate the Eighth Amendment and the Due Process of the Fourteenth Amendment?

    Decision: The U.S. District Court dismissed the suit holding that the students had failed to present evidence sustaining the alleged constitutional violations. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the case for further proceedings. Declining to hold corporal punishment as cruel and unusual punishement, the panel selected by the Fifth Circut Court findings were:

      ...the system of paddling at Drew was "excessive in a constitutional sense." It also found that the punishment meted out at Drew was generally "greatly disproportionate to the offense charged" and "degrading to the children in that institution." The panel went on to hold that the Dade County school system's policies regarding corporal punishment did not afford students adequate procedural safeguards as required by the Due Process Clause. Among the procedures needed to comport with due process the panel suggested that the student be told "precisely what it is that deserves punishment." If the student denies wrongdoing, then school officials should make sufficient inquiries to insure that “ . . .the student is guilty beyond any reasonable doubt."

    Fifth Circuit Court rejected the panels findings and Judge Morgan wrote in the majority en banc opinion:

      .....that the Eighth Amendment's "to the administration of discipline, through corporal punishment, to public school children by public school teachers and administrators." According to the majority,(of the sixteen circuit judges who heard the case, eleven voted to affirm the decision of the district court) the purpose of the cruel and unusual punishment clause was "to prevent the imposition of unduly harsh penalties for criminal conduct." Because prison discipline "is part of the total punishment to which the individual is being subject for his crimes," it is also governed
      by the Eighth Amendment. But the extension of the cruel and unusual punishment prohibition to public school discipline would "distort the intended scope of the (Eighth) Amendment." Likewise, the administration of corporal punishment on a student does not require procedural due process safeguards because paddlings are so "commonplace and trivial" in the schools that there is no deprivation of the student's property interests or loss to reputation.

    Granting certiorari the Supreme Court affirmed the en banc decision of the Fifth Circuit,in a five to decision issued on April 19, 1977.

    Reasoning: Justice Powell noted that the derivation of the language "cruel and unusual punishment clause goes back to the English Bill of Rights of 1869. Unable to find any case laws outside the criminal process where the Court has ruled the Eighth Amendment to be applicable, Powell acknowledged that the Court has on several occasions stated that the meaning of the cruel and unusual punishment clause may evolve "as public opinion becomes enlightened by a humane justice" but cautioned that any such evolution should not take the Eighth Amendment beyond the realm of criminal punishment. Powell concluded: "The schoolchild has little need for the protection of the Eighth Amendment." He then went on to list safeguards which "effectively remedy and deter" excessive corporal punishment. Among these are the openness of the school, the support of the student by family and friends, the constant accompaniment of other students and teachers, and the constraints imposed by potential civil and criminal liability.

    As far as Due Process for students Powell reasoned procedures should "minimize the risk of wrongful punishment and disputed questions of justification." A teacher could be personally liable for damages in a civil tort suit or be prosecuted for the crime of <assault and battery. If a teacher's recommendation to paddle a student was rejected at a hearing, Powell felt that there would be a "consequent impairment of the teacher's ability to maintain discipline in the classroom...." Therefore, while procedural safeguards might marginally reduce the risk of unwarranted corporal punishment, Powell concluded that the costs are far too great to justify such "a significant intrusion into an area of primary educational responsibility."

    Justice White, along with Justices Brennan, Marshall and Stevens in a challenging dissent to the majority’s opinion pointed out that nowhere does the Eighth Amendment state that its limitations apply only to criminal punishment.

      ...." if the framers had intended such a meaning, the simple insertion of the word criminal would have accomplished that purpose. In White's view, application of the Eighth Amendment does not turn on whether the behavior of the alleged wrongdoer is labeled criminal or not, but on whether the sanctions are applied as punishment. This can be determined by asking if the sanctions are aimed at retribution, rehabilitation, or deterrence. If so, the sanctions are subject to the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. In White's view, the paddlings in this case were clearly inflicted as a punishment and should be tested by the standard of the Eighth Amendment. White made clear that he does not believe that corporal punishment is per se cruel and unusual, but only that when "corporal punishment becomes so severe as to be unacceptable in a civilized society.. ." does it become unconstitutional.

    Teachers and administrators can paddle for the proper education and discipline of the student but punishment beyond this privilege may result in liability.

    Significance: Corporal punishment is allowed in school and is limited by common law.

Personal Note:

As a long time teacher of both public and private schools and a parent of two sons I have never found any cause for the use of corporal punishment in my home or classroom. Much has changed at the states' level with regard to corporal punishment in the schools. Twenty-seven states have now banned the practice. But at the Federal level, a see-no-evil, speak-no-evil policy prevails. Virtually no one in a position of national influence or authority seems willing to do what it takes to change this, explaining that since it was regulated to the level of common law the issue of school corporal punishment can only be dealt with at state and local levels. In the meantime, Ingraham v. Wright continues to define schoolchildren's rights, under the Constitution. As of June 1997 the following states continue to permit corporal punishment in their public school systems:

    Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas,
    Colorado, Delaware, Florida,
    Georgia, Idaho, Indiana,
    Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana,
    Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico,
    North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma,
    Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee,
    Texas, Wyoming.


Corkill, Phillip. The Law and American Education. Tucson, Arizona. 1991 (Lecture presented at the Flowing Wells School District Administrative Office).

INGRAHAM v. WRIGHT: The Return of Old Jack Seaver, Thomas J. Flygare Inequality in Education, Center for Law and Education, Number 23, Cambridge, Massachusetts, September 1978.

Important Landmark Cases in Educational Law

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