School Climate & Safety

Lawsuit: School Police Handcuffed Young Students in Violation of Their Rights

By Evie Blad — August 03, 2015 4 min read
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By Christina Samuels. Cross posted from On Special Education.

A school resource officer assigned to the 4,000-student Covington, Ky., district was accused in a lawsuit filed Monday of violating the constitutional and Americans with Disabilities Act rights of two elementary school students by handcuffing them as as a punishment.

S.R. v. Kenton County Sheriff’s Office was filed by the American Civil Liberities Union, as well as the Children’s Law Center in Covington, and Dinsmore & Shohl, a Cincinnati law firm. In addition to the sheriff’s office, the suit names Charles Korzenborn, the county sheriff, and Kevin Sumner, a sheriff’s deputy and school resource officer involved in the incidents.

The ACLU released videos of one handcuffing incident, which took place in the fall of 2014 and involved an 8-year-old 3rd grader, identified in the lawsuit as S.R. In the videos, Sumner can be seen standing on S.R.'s right after he places handcuffs on the child’s arms above the elbow. The videos were taken by a school staff member.

As S.R. squirms and cries, Sumner says “I asked you not to kick,” and “Now, you give me the behavior that you know you’re supposed to, or you suffer the consequences. It’s your decision to behave this way.” S.R. does not appear in the videos to attempt to leave his chair. The lawsuit says he was handcuffed for 15 minutes.

S.R. has post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, the lawsuit said. L.G., the second child involved in the case, was a 9-year-old 4th grader at the time of the incidents, and also has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. According to the lawsuit, Sumner used handcuffs on her twice; during the first incident she struggled so hard that Sumner called an ambulance to take her to the hospital for psychiatric evaluation. No video was released of the incidents involving L.G.

The lawsuit says that Sumner wrote incident reports months after the events that said the children were trying to hurt school staff—the suit disputes that the children were any threat. In 2013, Kentucky adopted a restraint and seclusion policy that prevents children from being restrained or secluded in school unless they represent a danger to themselves or to others. Restraints may not be used as punishment or to enforce compliance, according to state policy.

“It is heartbreaking to watch my little boy suffer because of this experience,” S.R.'s mother said in a statement released by the ACLU. “It’s hard for him to sleep, he has anxiety, and he is scared of seeing the officer in the school. School should be a safe place for children. It should be a place they look forward to going to. Instead, this has turned into a continuing nightmare for my son.”

Col. Pat Morgan, a spokesman for the Kenton County Sheriff’s Department, told Education Week that the sheriff’s attorneys have not had a chance to read the suit; the department just became aware of the lawsuit on Monday afternoon, he said.

Covington schools released a statement Monday:

We are aware that a lawsuit was filed against the Kenton County Sheriff's Office, and its employee, Deputy Sumner, who is assigned as a [school resource officer] within our school district. Privacy concerns of the students prevents us from speaking about this matter. However, the school district has fully cooperated with the children's legal counsel, as well as the Sheriff's Office in looking into the complaints and we will continue to do so. SROs are law enforcement officers, who are assigned in the schools to maintain the safety of students and staff and they act in accordance with their training as professional law enforcement officers. They are not called upon by school district staff to punish or discipline a student who engages in a school-related offense.

The River City News newspaper reported that Sumner was a teacher for four years, as well as a former Covington police officer who joined the sheriff’s department in December 2013. He became a school resource officer in February 2014.

Students with disabilities more likely than peers to be restrained and secluded

About 12 percent of students have disabilities, but they represented 75 percent of the children who were physically restrained at school during the 2011-12 school year, according to restraint and seclusion data collected by the Education Department’s office for civil rights. Claudia Center, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU’s disability rights program, said that restraint and seclusion in schools will be among the ACLU’s top priorities. “We are able to play a role in trying to shed some light on these issues,” Center said.

Jessica Butler, the congressional affairs coordinator for the Autism National Committee, has tracked state policy on restraint and seclusion for her annual report, “How Safe is the Schoolhouse?” At the time of the most recent report, in July, 25 states had what she describes as “meaningful protections” against restraint and seclusion for all students—Kentucky is one of those states. Butler’s report tracks policy that applies to school staff, however—law enforcement officers may follow different rules.

Also, a report from researchers at the University of New Hampshire asserts that local policy and school culture appear to override state rules when it comes to restraint and seclusion.

Photo: Eight-year-old S.R. is restrained by handcuffs by school resource officer Kevin Sumner in fall 2014. Courtesy American Civil Liberties Union

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.