Handcuffing children who act out in elementary school

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit against a deputy sheriff for handcuffing two children, ages 8 and 9, in separate incidents at the Latonia Elementary School in Covington, Kentucky. The ACLU is representing both sets of parents.

The 8-year-old is a Latino male and the 9-year-old is an African American girl. Both suffer from ADHD and were acting out in a manner that is consistent and expected from children with that diagnosis. The deputy sheriff is a School Resource Officer (SRO) assigned to the school. He has been accused of handcuffing the boy by his biceps for 15 minutes and handcuffing the girl for 30 minutes.

The Christian Science Monitor reports,

According to Sumner [the officer], the boy — identified only as S.R. — refused to sit down when Sumner told him too and then attempted to hit Sumner. In a separate incident, Sumner says that the girl – identified as L.G. – refused to follow teachers’ instructions and tried to leave her classroom. The teachers then called Sumner who handcuffed her.

The ACLU released cell phone video which captured Sumner speaking to the boy, who is handcuffed by his biceps in a chair.

The ACLU did not sue the school district because it is covered by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The Act prohibits suing a school district before all administrative remedies have been exhausted, including an effort to negotiate a settlement.

As you might expect, the exhaustion-of-remedies rule operates as an effective procedural bar to obtaining justice for most civil rights violations. Moreover, the deputy sheriff in this case may be immune from suit because of the doctrine of qualified immunity that protects public officials from being sued for damages unless they violated “clearly established” law that a reasonable official in his position would have known.

In this case, I think the teacher is more responsible for what happened than the officer because the teacher is better equipped by education and training to manage students. Police only know how to use force.

You would be mistaken if you think these two incidents are rare. The Monitor article continues,

Recent data reported to the Department of Justice by the school districts indicates that about 52,500 children with disabilities each year are subject to physical restraint (being held down by someone), while almost 4,000 children with disabilities are subject to ‘mechanical restraint’ such as handcuffs

The widespread use of physical restraint against children with disabilities is part of the School-to-Prison Pipeline that we will be writing about in future articles.

We started assigning police to schools after Columbine in order to protect students from mass shootings. Now they have become a one-stop solution for every problem, no matter how trivial.



8 Responses to Handcuffing children who act out in elementary school

  1. I don’t think it’s entirely true that cops were assigned to schools only after Columbine. I graduated from HS in a major midwestern capitol city in 1971 and that school had an assigned school officer. The difference is that in those days, officers were not in uniform and many kids and families were probably unaware of their presence. I don’t think there was much publicity attached to it.

    I worked for almost 10 years as a sub teacher in a small district in Arizona and saw abuses of power, especially with kids with various disabilities. Two of my kids are ADD/bipolar and guess what, the one who is mixed race encountered far more abuse in his childhood than the one who is white. He was locked once in a padded room when he was upset. I was not informed of this in the school written report, but he told me later.

    I’ve witnessed my teaching assistants on my sub days lock kids in a padded room (against my objection but I was told this was a regular routine with some kids) who in no, way, shape or form needed to be handled that way, and being locked up alone is terrifying to a child that young. Worse, the aide who locked them up would stand at the door window and keep talking to the kid, almost a form or harassment, which would make them cry and thrash around even more.

    It’s not that unusual to hold a child on the floor during a meltdown, a technique taught by psychologists and therapists and if done calmly and with compassion, can be assuring and calming to kids with disabilities. So there is definitely a difference in different types of restraint.

    However, this business of trying to scare kids with disabilities and especially minority kids with disabilities into behaving by applying handcuffs or having a uniformed school officer lead them to an in-school suspension room rather than being sent by themselves or taken by a teacher’s aide, is the ultimate bullshit and yes, shades of the school to prison pipeline.

    That’s not to say that there aren’t incidents in public schools where it’s never inappropriate to involve police – because there are such incidents, but I’ve never seen anything in a special ed or resource classroom that needed any oversight by law enforcement and again, it’s terrifying to kids who are just learning how to control their behavior and aren’t committing crimes. Even if they’re tweens or young teenagers, using law enforcement muscle in this way is completely inappropriate and just creates more trauma and confusion.

  2. cielo62 says:

    What the cop did was outrageous. But I take great offense at the blame the TEACHER automatically gets! Have you ever been in a classroom of 21 kids where one is throwing his chair, and has already punched a classmate? I have! In such a situation, you safeguard the rest of the class and call for help. When a child is in crisis, having a violent melt down, that requires a specialized response from behavioral experts. Or physical restraint, which teachers are not permitted to do unless certified. The school probably followed established protocol and therefore will not face any legal consequences. People like to think that violent mental illness is an adult phenomenon. Got news for you: children as young as 5 have committed great damage and bodily harm to others while in crisis. I support getting this sheriff fired. But seriously, unless you know all the medical history of these children, don’t be too quick to kick the teacher or administrators.

    • Hi, Cielo.

      As I was writing this piece, I suddenly thought about you. Figured you might disagree.

      You’re right. I never have been in that situation. The closest thing is I coached an age group swim team with 160 boys and girls ranging in age from 6 to 19. I never had a disciplinary problem. Did it for 8 summers.

      I realize the situations are different. My kids were there because they wanted to be.

    • It’s true. I’ve seen special ed high schoolers get violent and have even been struck by them. In the district I was in, the class is instructed to leave the room while the kid having the meltdown is locked in and extra personnel is called in to help, if the one having a meltdown doesn’t immediately self-calm. Usually it’s not a law enforcement matter and generally there are no restraints required. Generally the biggest and most unflappable employees are enlisted to help out.

  3. Rachael says:

    I posted bout this on my Facebook page the other day. This is totally outrageous. These are children acting out. On top of that, children with disabilities and some with histories of abuse already. They are NOT criminals, they are just children acting out. This is sick and insane and a great way to turn kids off on police and education. How dare they treat a child acting out like a criminal.

  4. I can’t imagine what adult thought this was the appropriate to an 8-year-old acting out. It’s cruel and it could establish a very negative perception of police forever in the eyes of the child.

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