Ingraham v. Wright

The 1977 case of Ingraham v. Wright is mostly cited for its ruling on the applicability of the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause to corporal punishment in public schools. The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments be inflicted.”

In Ingraham, the U.S. Supreme Court addressed two main issues: whether the use of corporal punishment violates the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause; and if so, whether the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires that prior notice and an opportunity to be heard must be afforded students before corporal punishment is imposed. In Ingraham, students in Florida challenged the constitutionality of the corporal punishment at their school under the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause.

With respect to the first issue, the Supreme Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment is not applicable to corporal punishment in schools. According to Ingraham, the Eighth Amendment is applicable only to criminal punishments, because the original intent of the framers of the amendment was to protect those convicted of crimes from cruel, excessive, and unreasonable punishments. The Court captured the distinction between criminals and students as it relates to the Eighth Amendment in the following epigram: “The prisoner and the schoolchild stand in wholly different circumstances, separated by the harsh facts of criminal conviction and incarceration” (p. 669). This distinction, according to the Supreme Court, is adequate justification for excluding corporal punishment of students from the protections of the Eighth Amendment.

As to the second issue, the Supreme Court ruled that the imposition of corporal punishment is consistent with the Due Process Clause; therefore, notice and a hearing are not required prior to imposition of corporal punishment. While the Court recognized that corporal punishment implicates students’ substantive due process rights to liberty, it nonetheless found adequate, for purposes of procedural due process, the common-law procedural safeguards in the various states subjecting teachers and administrators who inflict unreasonable or excessive corporal punishment to civil or criminal liability. In essence, if a state does not provide for civil or criminal liability for teachers who impose unreasonable or excessive corporal punishment, according to Ingraham, there is a stronger case for prior notice and hearing under the Due Process Clause.

In reaching its decision in Ingraham, the Court gave great weight to the historical tradition of corporal punishment in public schools in America, the longstanding common-law requirement that corporal punishment be reasonable but not excessive, and the impracticalities of requiring notice and a hearing each time a teacher decides to corporally punish a student. The tradition of judicial deference to the judgment of educators and school administrators regarding the education of children was also influential in the Court’s opinion. Ingraham identified certain factors courts consider in making determinations as to whether corporal punishment is reasonable. Some of the factors are the age of the child, the strength of the child, past behavior of the child, seriousness of the offense, nature of the punishment, severity of the punishment, and availability of less severe but equally effective means of discipline.

While about half of the states prohibit corporal punishment, it is clear from Ingraham that the Eighth Amendment does not compel these jurisdictions and local school systems to do so. Likewise, in states and districts that do retain corporal punishment, prior notice and a hearing are not required before students are punished, because the ambit of corporal punishment is adequately defined and regulated by common law and statute.

Joseph Oluwole

See also Corporal Punishment; Due Process; Eighth Amendment

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