Justice

School Cops Are Treating Kids With Disabilities Like Criminals

School resource officers (SRO) are back in the news after footage surfaced of a Flint, Michigan elementary schooler with ADHD who was locked in handcuffs for allegedly being disruptive at an after school program. 

The incident recalls similar cases involving questionable tactics used by SROs handling disruptive elementary and high school students. It also highlights a trend: students with learning disabilities are more likely to be detained by SROs.

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According to local news reports, 7-year-old Brownell STEM Academy student Caden McCadden was handcuffed by his school's resource officer after allegedly posing a threat to himself and other children. When his mother arrived to pick him up, she found him alone in a hallway in handcuffs, where he remained locked up for as long as an hour; the officer reportedly misplaced the keys.

The incident comes shortly after a South Carolina SRO was filmed throwing a "verbally disruptive" high school girl to the ground while she sat in a desk, then dragging her across a classroom floor. Former Richland County Sheriff's Deputy Ben Fields was fired shortly after the video drew national attention to his tactics.

But this most recent incident, which occurred on October 12 and is just now making headlines, recalls a disturbing video from August, which depicts a strikingly similar incident.

Elementary school students with ADHD are being handcuffed

Elementary school students with ADHD are being handcuffed.

Posted by ATTN: on Tuesday, November 3, 2015

In that case, Kenton County, Kentucky Sheriff's Deputy Kevin Sumner is accused of handcuffing elementary children who acted out because of attention deficit hyperactivity disabilities, according to an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawsuit. In one video involving the officer, an 8-year-old boy sits crying in a chair with handcuffs around his biceps, since his wrists are too small.

"Ow, that hurts," the boy was recorded as saying.

Sumner responds, saying that if the boy, who has ADHD, wants the handcuffs removed, he is "going to have to behave and ask me nicely."

"And if you're behaving, I'll take them off, but as long as you're acting up, you're not going to get them off," the deputy says in the video. A federal lawsuit with the ACLU and the officer is ongoing.

How we're failing students.

The incidents are "an indication of our failing students with disabilities," according to Susan Mizner, disability counsel for the ACLU's national office.

"Law enforcement and schools need to understand that responding with force, especially bringing in a uniformed officer, does not make a child's behavioral issues improve," she told ATTN:. "In fact it is much more likely to make them worse and cause lasting trauma."

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Mizner said that because SROs sometimes do not have sufficient training in deescalation techniques, their impulse can be to use harsher tactics, which can become an issue in cases where the student may have a disability. According to federal data, even though students with disabilities make up only 12 percent of the student population, they represent almost 60 percent of those placed in "seclusion or involuntary confinement," and 75 percent of those physically restrained.

To some education experts, mechanical restraint—which involves restraint devices like handcuffs—is not always the best way to deal with misbehaving students, especially those with disability.

"What kind of threat could a small child possibly pose that would merit such an over-reaction?" Joan Goodman, education, culture, and society division professor at the University of Pennsylvania, told ATTN:. "What is needed, at least initially, is a calming, soothing, gentle approach rather than one that injures the child physically and emotionally. Once quieted, it may be appropriate to look further into the behavior of the child and what provoked it but that would not be the role of the police."

"Unfortunately, the likely result of physical domination and force is to make children more, not less, angry and aggressive," Goodman said.