JACKSON v. INDIAN PRAIRIE SCHOOL DISTRICT 204 (August 11, 2011)

Paula Jackson is a special education support teacher for Indian Prairie School District 204. Her role was to assist the classroom teachers by providing individual support for special needs students. Beginning with the 2005-2006 school year, she was assigned to the White Eagle Elementary School. For the following three school years, she had responsibility for W. K., a troubled boy prone to violence. Over those three years, she witnessed episode after episode of erratic and violent behavior. The district held Individual Education Plan meetings in April 2006, June of 2006 , September of 2006, May of 2007, June 2007, October 2007, and March 2008. By the early 2007 meetings, Jackson recommended that the W.K. be transferred. Jackson also requested that he be reassigned to a different support teacher. Before either of those things happened, W.K. had another outburst. The school principal calmed him down and instructed Jackson to meet with him. When she arrived at his room, he swung a chair at her. In the ensuing struggle, she fell and was injured. W.K. was suspended and never returned to White Eagle. Jackson brought suit against the school district and several administrators pursuant to § 1983, alleging a substantive due process violation. Judge St. Eve (N.D. Ill.) granted summary judgment to the defendants. Jackson appeals.

In their opinion, Seventh Circuit Judges Bauer, Posner, and Williams affirmed. The Court noted the two exceptions to the general rule that the due process clause does not impose a duty on a state to protect individuals from harm by private actors. One is when the state has custody over a person, which is not applicable here. The other, on which Jackson bases her claim, is when the state affirmatively places a person in danger. Under that exception, a plaintiff must establish that the defendant affirmatively created or increased the danger, that her injuries were the proximate result of the defendant's failure to protect her, and the failure to protect her "shocks the conscience." The Court resolved the case on that third prong. Although the "shocks the conscience" standard is not precisely defined, the Court noted that it requires conduct on the "more culpable end of the tort law spectrum of liability." The Court recited the facts that supported a finding of such conduct and those that supported the opposite conclusion. Although admitting that it was a close call, the Court concluded that they did not satisfy the due process standard.