Restraint and seclusion in schools, particularly when used with students with disabilities, has been a simmering national issue for years.
But when video of a Kentucky school resource officer handcuffing an 8-year-old boy was released earlier this month by the American Civil Liberties Union, debate over the practice of restraining students erupted anew. The ACLU filed a lawsuit against the school resource officer, Kevin Sumner, and his employer, the Kenton County, Ky., sheriff’s department.
The seven-minute video, which shows a whimpering and crying boy with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder cuffed at the biceps behind his back while Sumner stands nearby, is also stirring debate about disability, race (one of the children in the lawsuit is Hispanic, and one is African-American), and the role of school resource officers. And experts in school security say that the incident brings up another vexing issue: School resource officers are too often pulled into disciplinary issues that are better left to school staff.
“It’s hard for me to watch that video,” said Mo Canady, the executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, who was a school resource officer for 12 years. “It doesn’t look good.”
But Canady said that it’s not clear what event or behavior led up to the boy’s cuffing. He also noted that Sumner did not go through the national association’s training program, which, Canady said, makes it clear that “school discipline is not the role of the SRO.”
Kenneth S. Trump, the president of National School Safety and Security Services and a frequent commenter on school security topics, had a similar view.
“What we’re seeing is that many SROs have become the de facto extra administrators in the classroom. It creates an environment for criminalizing a school disciplinary matter,” he said.
The U.S. Department of Education has made the same point. In its first-ever guidance on school discipline, released last year, it said that disciplinary actions more often fall on students with disabilities and on students who are members of racial minorities. Administrators should avoid relying on school resource officers to deal with discipline issues, the guidance notes.
The lawsuit from the ACLU and two law firms claims that the officer violated the civil rights of the boy and another child, as well as violating their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act. In addition to ADHD, the 3rd grade boy shown in the video has post-traumatic stress disorder. A 9-year-old 4th grader was cuffed in two incidents that were not recorded. She has ADHD, the lawsuit says.
Both children are enrolled in the 4,000-student Covington, Ky., district. Neither the school district nor the sheriff’s department answered questions about whether Sumner will serve as a school resource officer for the 2015-16 school year.
The school district’s own investigation, however, justifies Sumner’s actions. The district released a two-page investigative report that was written in March, a few months after the cuffing incidents. The investigator said that the school staff did not ask Sumner to cuff the children, but that they had not been able to calm the students.
“In each instance, the children assaulted Deputy Sumner immediately prior to his decision to handcuff them. S.R. [the 3rd grade boy] without provocation or warning swung at Deputy Sumner; L.G. [the 4th grade girl] hit, spit, scratched him, and expelled and smeared mucus on him. In each instance, Deputy Sumner perceived that the students posed a safety threat to themselves, others, and him. Once the children calmed and were no longer a safety risk the restraints were removed. The handcuffs were not used as a form of punishment by Deputy Sumner; instead they were used for law enforcement purposes to bring two violent individuals (albeit, elementary-aged students) under control,” the report said.
Kenton County Sheriff Charles Korzenborn says he “steadfastly” backs his deputy. “Deputy Sumner responded to the call and did what he is sworn to do and in conformity with all constitutional and law enforcement standards,” Korzenborn said in a statement.
The legal team that brought the lawsuit disputes the investigator’scharacterization of the interactions. From its perspective, Sumner violated the state’s two-year-old prohibition on restraint and seclusion as punishments.
And, by doing so, he caused emotional hardship to children whose disabilities already made them vulnerable, the lawyers contend.
“There are needed policy changes within the school district and within the sheriff’s department,” said Kim Brooks Tandy, the executive director of the Children’s Law Center in Covington, one of the parties that filed the suit on behalf of the students. “Those policies cannot result in traumatizing young children.”
A version of this article appeared in the August 19, 2015 edition of Education Week as Handcuffing of Students Reignites Debate on Use of Restraint