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8th Circuit says former Aberdeen special ed teacher violated students’ 4th Amendment rights

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A lawsuit against a former special education teacher in Aberdeen can go forward, according to an opinion by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The appellate court found that Carrie Weisenburger violated three elementary students’ Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable seizure.

The Eighth Circuit upheld a lower federal court decision that Weisenburger is not entitled to qualified immunity for those violations and clarified that her supervisors do have immunity.

Zachary William Peterson appeared before the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in May. He argued that Federal District Judge Charles Kornmann got it wrong in his 2021 finding that Carrie Weisenburger had violated constitutional rights of her special needs students at May Overby Elementary between 2014 and 2016.

“There is no robust consensus of Fourth Amendment caselaw concerning unreasonable seizures in the school setting which would inform an educator in Ms. Weisenburger’s position that her actions violated the Constitution,” Peterson told appellate judges.

In its opinion, the Eighth Circuit said Kornmann got it right, at least as far as Weisenburger’s liability for violating Fourth Amendment protections.

Appellate judges agreed that Weisenburger unreasonably seized or detained special education students in four situations: secluding one student in an isolation room 274 times in a four-month period; secluding another student in a calm-down corner; grabbing that same student by the arms to push him into a swimming pool and then preventing him from getting out; and pinning down a third student and stripping off his clothes to get him into his swimsuit.

The appellate court did not find, as Kornmann did, that Weisenburger was liable for Fourteenth Amendment violations.

At Peterson’s request, judges also made clear that qualified immunity extended to all other school employees named in the suit.

Peterson said he could not “definitively distill” from the order whether Judge Kornmann intended to keep the supervisors in.

“We only get one shot at qualified immunity, and we did not want to show up at trial and find out that we had individual claims that were still alive,” he said.

The case now returns to the federal district court for further proceedings.

Rapid City freelancer Victoria L. Wicks has been producing news for SDPB since August 2007.
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  • Parents of five special education students sued the Aberdeen School District in 2018 in federal court. The parents allege that a teacher subjected the students to physical restraint, seclusion as punishment, and unnecessary force, among other offenses. The parents also accuse administrators of ignoring complaints. The federal circuit judge presiding over the case issued an order last October and held that the case can continue to a jury. The employees appealed, and the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals heard the case on Wednesday, May 11.