The immunity protections described above all relate to whether an educator can be held financially liable in court for injuries caused by the educator. They do not address whether the educator could possibly suffer negative employment consequences for her actions. In most cases, a school district may attempt to take negative employment action even if an educator is immune from liability for her actions. There is, however, a significant exception to this rule.
Unfortunately, many educators must at some point physically restrain a student in order to maintain order or to keep the student from injuring himself or others. Recognizing this fact, the Texas Legislature granted protection in 2003 to educators placed in this position. The Texas Education Code prohibits a school district from terminating, nonrenewing or suspending a professional employee who uses reasonable physical force against a student to maintain discipline. The law applies to most public school employees, including teachers, teacher aides, counselors, nurses, bus drivers and certified administrators. The law applies both to educators working under an employment contract and also to staff who are employed at-will or without a contract.
As a state law, this protection would supersede any local district policy or practice that conflicted with it. There have been a number of cases since the law went into effect in which districts have attempted to terminate an employee for use of force, and the commissioner of education has proven that he takes the law seriously by supporting the educator.
It is important to note that the law protects only actions taken to maintain order immediately. It does not protect an educator who violates a district’s corporal punishment policy, so there is an important distinction as to whether the action was intended to stop a student from doing something (restraint) or to punish a student for having done something (corporal punishment).
It is also important that the use of force be used only when and to the degree the educator reasonably
believes the force is necessary to maintain discipline. In other words, there are limits on what kind of force can be used in what kinds of situations. What is reasonable might be subject to debate, but a number of factors have been established as significant:
What were the age, sex and condition of the student?
What was the possible influence of the student’s actions on others?
Was the amount of force necessary to compel a change in the student’s behavior or obedience?
Was the force disproportionate to the offense, unnecessarily degrading or likely to cause serious injury to the student?
Many districts have local board policies related to student restraint. The policies may vary because they are local, but they cannot conflict with state law. It is common, however, that the policy provides that an educator may restrain a student when necessary to avoid injury to the student or others or damage to district property.
The law protects some but not all physical contact—it must be reasonable and for the purpose of maintaining order. It also prohibits some but not all district actions. For instance, it prohibits termination and suspension but does not prohibit a written reprimand, a growth plan or some other less serious response.