School Climate & Safety

Handcuffing of Children Raises Questions

May 17, 2005 5 min read
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When police in St. Petersburg, Fla., handcuffed an unruly 5-year-old kindergartner at Fairmount Park Elementary School one day this spring, school officials had been trying to calm the girl down for more than an hour.

St. Petersburg Fla., Police Chief Charles Harmon talks to reporters April 28 to tell them why one of his officers needed to handcuff a 5-year-old kindergartner.

“The floor was littered with things she’d knocked off the desk,” said George L. Kajtsa, a spokesman for the St. Petersburg Police Department. He said that police officers restrained the girl with plastic handcuffs because she had been punching at her teacher and the assistant principal, jumping up on tables, and tearing items off the walls.

But the incident—recorded on videotape and aired on television newscasts nationwide—and similar events reported in other schools around the country this academic year have stirred concern among many parents, educators, and community leaders. Their question: Is it ever appropriate to handcuff an elementary school pupil?

“The police officers’ conduct was outrageous,” Dennis Courtland Hayes, the interim president and chief executive officer of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, based in Baltimore, said in a statement about the Fairmount Park incident. “If three police officers and two education professionals have to resort to shackling a 5-year-old, what kind of message are they sending to America’s children?”

Many educators and school safety experts agree, calling the use of handcuffs on a child so young extreme because a boy or girl that age doesn’t pose a significant physical threat to adults.

Others, though, counter that age can be deceiving, and that threatening behavior by young children can pose risks to adults and other students, undermine the authority of educators, and disrupt learning.

“Strength and size have nothing to do with it,” Mr. Kajtsa said. “She has her fists balled up and hitting the teacher,” he said of the girl in St. Petersburg. “Some people contend she couldn’t do anything [to hurt the teacher], but that’s not the point. The child knows they can do what they want without the teacher interfering. The teacher’s hands are basically tied.”

The mother of the girl has filed a lawsuit against the 113,000-student Pinellas County school district and the police department, alleging child abuse, according to Mr. Kajtsa.

‘Unappreciated Problem’

Some experts say that because teachers are under legal constraints on how they can discipline children, student unruliness is difficult for them to control. That’s why teachers resort to calling police, who then determine whether a child should be handcuffed.

“This is an unappreciated problem in America’s schools,” said Philip K. Howard, the founder and chairman of Common Good, a nonprofit legal-reform coalition based in New York City that is working to restore what it sees as common sense to American law.

“Today, the rudeness of children—because they know the teacher can’t do anything about [their behavior]—is shocking,” he said. “Authority has been turned upside-down. So we resort to police.”

But Randall Marshall, the legal director of the Miami-based Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, called such arguments overblown. The legal system, he pointed out, still allows educators to take steps to prevent children from behaving inappropriately. Schools that have ongoing disciplinary problems, he said, need to devote resources to help train staff members and work on disciplinary solutions, rather than rely on police help.

Handcuffing elementary-age children is “uncalled for,” said Alphonse Shropshire, the administrator of school social-work services for the 64,000-student New Orleans school district.

He said that elementary pupils who act out don’t need to be handcuffed to be calmed down. His district has been using a national nonviolent-crisis-intervention program since the mid-1990s. The program—created by the Crisis Prevention Institute, Inc., a Brookfield, Wis.-based organization that promotes nonviolent approaches to managing disruptive behavior—trains educators and security personnel in how to deal with disruptive or unruly students, as well as how to use physical restraints effectively as a last resort.

A new study, meanwhile, is focusing attention on discipline for even younger pupils. It found a higher rate of expulsions for pre-K pupils than for K-12 students. (“Preschoolers Expelled From School at Rates Exceeding That of K-12,” this issue.)

West Virginia Response

Districts are divided on just how disruptive incidents in the early grades should be handled, and on whether it is ever appropriate to handcuff an elementary-age child.

The 5,300-student Ohio County, W. Va., schools faced that dilemma last month after a 7-year-old 1st grader at the 140-student Bethlehem Elementary School allegedly threw an eraser during class, then threw a chair and began acting belligerently. The principal tried to calm him down, but the boy kicked her and evaded teachers until he eventually fled the building, according to Kathy Finsley, the district’s general counsel and human-resources director.

Because the school’s attendance director and security officer were unavailable to help at the time, school officials decided to call the local police, said Ms. Finsley.

Meanwhile, a teacher pursued the boy to keep him from running out into traffic. The child ran back into the building just as police arrived. But he ignored a police officer’s request to speak with him and continued running around the building banging on doors and screaming, according to Ms. Finsley. He kicked and struck repeatedly at the officer. At that point, the officer decided to handcuff him.

District officials said the boy was handcuffed for only a few minutes.

“We have reason to believe that everyone acted appropriately and according to policies and procedures,” Ms. Finsley said.

However, she said, the district is working with a lawyer for the boy’s parents as well as the Ohio Valley Black Caucus to revisit school policy.

In Ohio, officials of the 27,000-student Kent school district have been using a policy since 1994 that allows school security officers to restrain students of any age, including through the use of handcuffs, if they are engaging in potentially violent or illegal behavior.

So far, during the 2004-05 school year, the district has reported 33 incidents in which students needed to be handcuffed. Although none of those incidents involved K-6 students, the district has restrained elementary pupils with handcuffs in the past.

“We would rather make sure we were taking measures to ensure that the school is safe than look back and see someone get hurt because we stood by,” said Becky Hanks, a district spokeswoman.

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