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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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In response to these reports, the National Disability Rights Network has called for an end to restraint and seclusion in US schools, and along with that comes a radical need to rethink the use of law enforcement in the management of disabled students. Police officers are typically not provided with specific training in working with disabled children, let alone handling the de-escalation of a situation where a disabled child is frightened and potentially reactive. As public safety officers, their primary professional goal is not to provide disciplinary support in schools except in special circumstances – and routine discipline is not a special circumstance.

Clearly, the use of police officers to assist with school discipline is out of proportion to the need, and yet it persists. Some school districts, like Evelyn Towry’s, mandate a law enforcement provision in IEPs, which allows the school to call police officers to assist with discipline problems, often under a vague mandate that could involve anything from an episode of extreme violence to stubbornness in the classroom. Others districts may strongly advocate for it, or push for frequent review of disabled students to determine if such a clause should be added. Rather than focusing on handling behavior before it gets out of control, districts are handing their students over to third parties when the going gets rough – and disabled students are the ones paying the price for those decisions, often finding themselves suspended for extended periods of time over behavior they cannot be expected to control.

Teachers Struggling In Understaffed Environments

So why the push to outsource discipline? Blame austerity measures again, which, on top of poor disability funding to begin with, have hit a number of districts hard. That’s a recipe for frustration, and sometimes danger, when it comes to providing a safe and educational environment for disabled students. Teacher Alicia Maude Wein from Guildeland High School in New York explained to AlterNet via email how her classroom support had radically decreased: 

[Before], it was me, a co-teacher with a literacy/special ed degree, and three additional adults providing support--5 adults every day to the 18 kids. This year, after 2 rounds of deep budget cuts (in a relatively affluent suburban district), it's just me.

 Overwhelmed by conditions like this, teachers struggle to keep order, and Wein says she understands why districts might be tempted to turn to outside options:

I think similar circumstances (or worse) could be lending to the desperation that would sway some districts to call in outside supports like law enforcement (as grim, disrespectful, and embarrassing as that notion is) when things get out of control in the classroom.

She noted that her district is generally supportive, promotes mainstreaming of disabled students, and works with students, staff and parents to create a productive environment, even under the stress of budget cuts. The same can’t be said of all districts, though, and in some cases the various pressures can create an explosive mixture: when staff without training for handling disabled students encounter autistic students mid-meltdown, for example, they may not know how to respond, and could end up traumatizing students in an attempt to impose order.

This lack of teacher and staff training is a serious matter for both teachers and students; Wein herself pointed out that she’d taken just three credits in Special Education 15 years ago – and yet today is faced with teaching and managing a classroom of disabled students. As the Michigan Education Association warns

Because school personnel are not trained to work with children whose violent behavior stems from a disability and where the possibility of injury is discounted by the District, they daily face a situation they are ill-suited to handle without suffering injury, both physical and psychological.

Without the support they need to deal with disabled students, and the training they need to effectively and humanely handle their behavior, there should be little surprise that so many teachers and administrators are allowing law enforcement to deal with these issues instead. But as Vicki Soloniuk, a pediatrician who works with disabled children and helps their parents on advocate on their behalf, pointed out in a conversation with AlterNet, the turn to these punitive measures can actually enflame a disabled student’s behavior rather than defuse it.

 
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