Missouri Justices Weigh Teacher Liability for Student Injuries

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (CN) – The Missouri Supreme Court heard oral arguments Tuesday over whether immunity should be granted to a high school teacher accused of carelessly restraining a combative student, breaking his arm in the process.  

In 2016, Ruth Mariano brought her son, Israel, to Independence Academy after he refused to get on the bus to school and turned him over to Carlos Alsup, an in-school suspension teacher who placed the boy in a restraint that broke his arm.

Mariano sued Alsup in Jackson County Circuit Court, alleging negligence and excessive force. Judge James Kanatzar denied Alsup’s motion for summary judgment, prompting the teacher to seek a writ of prohibition from the Missouri Supreme Court barring Kanatzar from taking any further action in the underlying case.   

Although all parties agree that the boy’s injury was unintentional, their attorneys disagree over whether the technique and force used by Alsup were appropriate.

On Tuesday, judges of the Missouri Supreme Court asked whether teachers should be able to use their discretion when tasked with having to restrain a noncompliant student, or if there should be an exact, step-by-step process taught to school employees and followed as district policy, in the hopes of leaving no room for human error.

Alsup’s attorney J. Drew Marriott of EdCounsel said the judges’ questions were on point, as the issue raises concerns about how public school officials are supposed to de-escalate emergent situations while simultaneously protecting the safety of their students.

“It’s important that teachers have the ability to make decisions in real time and use their own judgment,” said Marriott, who used the example of a police officer’s discretion to engage in a high-speed pursuit.

Marriott said his client acted in accordance with the yearly training he received.

“The record is clear that the policy in place was not a step-by-step approach, but merely provided guidelines and tools to use in the event of an emergency,” he said of the Independence School District’s restraint policy.

Mariano’s attorney, Timothy H. Bosler, Jr., told the panel that the issue boils down to the fact that the school board is ultimately responsible for developing and implementing restraint training provided to the faculty.

Because Alsup did not adhere to those techniques, Bosler said he was negligent and should not be entitled to official immunity.  

“You’re arguing that the government has the incentive not to train employees at the risk of making them vulnerable to suit?” Judge Patricia Breckenridge asked the attorney.

“The government made the decision to pass this statute in order to protect students,” Bosler replied. “This training is required and if we do not make them follow the proper techniques then the training is pointless.”

It is unclear when the court will issue a ruling in the case.

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