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No Qualified Immunity for School in Due Process Violations

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

Can a football game suspension be a civil rights violation?

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday that a Nashville student can proceed with his civil rights claims against school administrators who punished him with a 10-day suspension that caused him to miss two weeks of his high school football season.

Christian Heyne, a former Hillsboro High School football player, sued Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) in 2009 to challenge a 10-day suspension. Heyne, who first appealed the punishment through the standard school board channels, claimed that the suspension was a civil rights violation, excessive, and cost him two football games as well as college scholarships.

Following a Friday football practice in 2008, Heyne, who is Caucasian, accidentally ran over D.A.'s foot with his car. Heyne apologized to D.A., who is African-American. D.A. threatened to kill Heyne.

D.A. reported the accident to Hillsboro Principal Rod Manuel. Manuel had previously instructed Hillsboro staff to be more lenient in enforcing the MNPS Code of Conduct against African-American students because too many African-American students were serving in-school suspensions. Manual did not discipline D.A. for threatening Heyne, though public threats are a Code of Conduct violation.

The Monday following the accident, Heyne returned to school; his only restriction was that he was not permitted to operate a car on campus. Following pressure from D.A.'s parents Manuel suspended Heyne for two days for reckless endangerment the next day. Two days after the initial suspension MNPS officials allegedly ordered Manuel to add charges of using an object in an assaultive manner and cruelty to a student. Heyne's suspension was increased to 10 days.

Before Heyne's suspension, several college recruiters had approached him about playing college football on scholarship, and Congressman Jim Cooper had offered him a congressional appointment for Heyne's application to a U.S. military service academy. Because of the suspension, Heyne alleged that he was ineligible for football scholarships and military service academies.

Heyne sued the school district and local government under the Civil Rights Act for procedural due process violations, substantive due process violations, equal protection violations, and failure to train and supervise. Officials named in the case claimed they were insulated from liability by qualified immunity.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, finding that school and MNPS officials were not protected by qualified immunity. The Sixth Circuit also ruled that Heyne could proceed with his procedural due process and equal protection claims against Manuel and the MNPS officials that ordered the 10-day suspension.

The facts of the case seem to favor Christian Heyne. Do you think he will recover from the MNPS for civil rights violations? Is any recovery too little, too late?

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