Sometimes the very people who are supposed to teach, nurture, and protect students in public schools — the students’ teachers, principals, coaches, and other school officials — are instead the people who harm them. Public school officials have beaten students, causing significant physical harm. They have also left students suffering from depression, suicidal ideation, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. When school officials cause such severe harm to students, all the federal courts of appeals to consider the issue have concluded that the Fourteenth Amendment at least in theory protects them, regardless of whether the form of the harm is emotional or physical. Yet, an analysis of the cases across the circuits reveals that the courts have yet to actually find that a case of severe emotional harm on its own violates the Constitution, even though they have been willing to find physical harm unconstitutional. Not only do the courts not find stand-alone emotional harm sufficient to make out a constitutional violation, they also collectively evaluate students’ emotional harm very differently than their physical harm.
This Article explores the distinction in the way the courts treat standalone emotional harm in public school students’ Fourteenth Amendment cases. It contends that if the courts are going to recognize that the Constitution protects students from severe harm regardless of its physical or emotional form, as they do, then the distinction in treatment of emotional harm is untenable. Drawing on substantive due process theory, psychology, and law and emotions theory, this Article argues that the distinction in treatment is the result of emotions stigma, analogous to the long-recognized phenomenon of mental illness stigma, that discredits students’ emotions-based claims. It proposes a paradigm for evaluating students’ emotional harm that responds to and helps to overcome emotions stigma so the Constitution will protect students when school officials cause them severe emotional harm.