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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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There’s a danger looming in schools today that’s putting our nation’s most vulnerable children at risk. Around the country, teachers and administrators are struggling to meet the needs of a growing population of disabled students, who are entering school environments ill-prepared to educate them responsibly, thanks to a lack of both adequate training and resources. This lack of preparation for handling students’ special needs is, in turn, sparking a disturbing and dangerous trend: the use of harmful “zero tolerance” policies that end in seclusion, restraint, expulsion and – too often – law enforcement intervention for the disabled children involved.

From coast to coast, the incidents are as heartbreaking as they are shocking:

  • In Brooklyn, NY, G.R., a 5-year-old autistic student, was traumatized when police were called to his school because he was having a temper tantrum. He was physically removed from the school by police, strapped to a stretcher, and when his family members tried to advocate for him, they were allegedly handcuffed. His grandmother's ribs were broken in the altercation.
  • In Albuquerque, a 7-year-old with autism was handcuffed by police officers called to restrain him. His “offenses” included calling other children names, knocking over chairs, spitting, and shooting rubber bands at a police officer.  
  • Tony Smith, a disabled student suing the Atlanta Police Department and his former school district, claims he was handcuffed to a filing cabinet for seven hours when the school investigated a crime that had taken place on campus. The officers involved, his suit argues, violated department policy and his civil rights.
  • In 2010, autistic student Evelyn Towry made national headlines when she was arrested after becoming agitated because her teacher wouldn’t let her wear her favorite cow hoodie. Her Individualized Education Plan (IEP) detailing her needs and how they should be met specifically included a clause allowing the school to contact law enforcement in the event of disruptive behavior, though her parents claimed they neither saw nor approved the document.

Cases like these, of students trapped by school policies rarely designed to deal with the nuances of their diagnoses, are growing – and the situation is further clouded by race, class and social factors. These factors can determine what kinds of evaluations, interventions and treatments are provided to students with disabilities or suspected disabilities, and ultimately decide whether children are able to successfully complete their educations, or fall by the wayside.

Race, Disability, and Discipline in Public Schools

The increased use of law enforcement to deal with behavioral issues in schools gained heightened attention this year when Salecia Johnson, age 6, had a temper tantrum in her principal’s office, and was handcuffed and detained by local police as a result. She was so traumatized by the experience that she has trouble sleeping at night – and she’s not the only one.

Such situations are growing extremely common across the United States, with school districts calling on police to handle routine disciplinary infractions rather than dealing with them on their own. Many have adopted harsh zero-tolerance policies, where infractions are handled with a one-size-fits-all model, regardless of age, ability or the larger context in which they took place. These policies can effectively set some students on the path of what the Florida ACLU calls a school to prison pipeline -- and, notably, many of the victims of this system, like Salecia, are minorities.

Racial disparities when it comes to school discipline are well-established in the United States; students of color are twice as likely as their white peers to be subject to out-of-school suspensions, according to the Department of Education’s 2012 Civil Rights Data Collection. Yet often, there’s more to these cases than meets the eye, because many of the minority students who find themselves harshly penalized also happen to be students with disabilities, many of them undiagnosed. 

 
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