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Police Handcuffing 7-Year-Olds? The Brutality Unleashed on Kids With Disabilities in Our School Systems

As school budgets are cut, disabled students are being handed over to police for behavioral infractions -- and handcuffs are just the beginning of what they're forced to endure.

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Annie Linden is a former teacher who taught in districts primarily composed of low-income students of color, and still participates in the preparation of Individualized Education Programs. In an interview with AlterNet, she noted that many of her former students showed signs of cognitive disabilities that went undiagnosed, sometimes due to parental fears about deportation, or concerns that their children might be removed from school. The data suggest that these parents were right to be afraid: students of color are already at a higher risk of expulsion, and disability can compound that risk.

Studies in individual states lend support to the critical importance of discussing race and disability together in the context of school discipline; this is particularly important given the considerable funding disparities between white and nonwhite children when it comes to disabilities like autism. Students of color are generally  less likely to be diagnosed with disorders of these kinds, making it still harder to provide them with the support they need in educational settings.

When Disability Meets District Policy

Even without counting the many children with undiagnosed disabilities in schools today, we know that the overall number of disabled students in our public school system is on the rise. Increasingly, school districts are tasked with educating students with a wide range of intellectual, cognitive and emotional disabilities, rather than physical disabilities, as in prior decades. In theory, our ability to identify these disorders earlier than we could in the past should ensure that students get the support and access they need to succeed in school, with individualized education as appropriate. But in practice, the rise in disabled students is crunching school districts terribly, as funding for these students has not at all kept pace with the rise in diagnoses. As a result, many schools are now hard pressed to serve their students’ educational needs and deal with disciplinary issues.

As funding for special education drops and available staff members dwindle – and as disabled students with behavioral problems are increasingly mainstreamed in response to changing thinking on disability education – discipline is becoming a large problem in a growing number of mainstream classrooms. In response, some districts have decided to bring out the heavy guns for handling disruptions associated with disabled students; from outbursts in class to tantrums in the hall, the new go-to solution in many districts is to call the police.

In addition to calling on law enforcement, Disability Rights Oregon notes that there has been an uptick in the use of restraint and seclusion in schools, as well. The organization points out that these practices appear to disproportionately target disabled students, and can be fatal in some cases.

Last month, 16-year-old Corey Foster died after police were called to restrain him. Though Foster’s disability status is unclear, he was attending a school for at-risk youth that included a number of students with disabilities, and his fellow students say restraint is a common disciplinary tactic.

In Jackson, Mississippi, students at an alternative school are routinely handcuffed for discipline infractions, and many of them have emotional or intellectual disabilities. Such treatment of disabled students is not uncommon; the Judge Rotenberg Center, for example, has been under media scrutiny for years due to practices like shocking autistic students. And study on the use of restraint in Texas schools has indicated a looming “ crisis in special education” as growing numbers of disabled students are restrained by their teachers, sometimes unsafely because these teachers had never been trained to perform such techniques appropriately. These cases involved school staff, not law enforcement, but they are part of a larger pattern of criminalizing disabled students that has been criticized by disability rights organizations.

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