Ingraham v. Wright,
430 U.S. 651 (1977)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Ingraham v. Wright, 430 U.S. 651 (1977)

Ingraham v. Wright

No. 75-6527

Argued November 2, 1976

Decided April 19, 1977

430 U.S. 651


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.


1. The Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause of the Eighth Amendment does not apply to disciplinary corporal punishment in public schools. Pp. 430 U. S. 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. 430 U. S. 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. 430 U. S. 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. 430 U. S. 672-682.

Page 430 U. S. 652

(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. 430 U. S. 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 school children. 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, 376 U. S. 692, the case for administrative safeguards is significantly less compelling than it would otherwise be. Pp. 430 U. S. 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. 430 U. S. 680-682.

525 F.2d 909, affirmed.

POWELL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and STEWART, BLACKMUN, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. WHITE, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post, p. 430 U. S. 683. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 430 U. S. 700.

Page 430 U. S. 653

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