Handcuffing Students and Physical Restraint on School Grounds

Here's a look at the issue of police officers using handcuffs and physical restraint when they're called to schools to respond to challenging behaviors by students with disabilities.
Published: July 17, 2024

Editor’s Note: Although this article was originally published in 2015, the suggested practices on student discipline, physical restraints, and other physical interventions still apply. This article has been updated and edited.

The ACLU recently filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against a sheriff’s department in Kentucky over a school resource officer’s use of handcuffs on two children, ages 8 and 9, both of whom have disabilities.

Over the last few years, we’ve seen numerous lawsuits against law enforcement agencies reported in the media, where police who are called to respond to a student exhibiting disruptive behavior at school use handcuffs as a safety measure.

In the case in Kentucky, the local sheriff was reported in several news articles to be supportive of the actions of the SRO.

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“Deputy Sumner responded to the call and did what he is sworn to do and in conformity with all constitutional and law enforcement standards,” Kenton County Sheriff Chuck Korzenborn said. “In this particular case, all the facts and circumstances have not yet been presented. I steadfastly stand behind Deputy Sumner, who responded to the school’s request for help.”

The intent of this article is not to judge the actions of the deputy in this case. Instead, let’s look at the issue of officers using handcuffs and physical restraint when they’re called to schools to respond to challenging behaviors, especially when the student exhibiting that behavior is a student with disabilities.

What the sheriff said in this case is probably quite accurate. For just about anyone in the law enforcement community, placing handcuffs on an individual who is demonstrating risk behaviors sounds perfectly reasonable. Generally speaking, an officer should absolutely have the right to ensure his or her safety, and should have options available to help ensure the safety of everyone involved.

RELATED: How to Manage Students with Behavioral Issues

But with the increased scrutiny placed on police regarding use of force, when the public sees a video like the one from Kentucky, most will only see what appears to be two young, vulnerable children being brutalized by police.

Further, police can fall into a legal gray area as the rules governing the use of physical restraint in schools vary significantly from state to state. Although mechanical restraint (which includes the use of handcuffs) is forbidden in most states for school personnel, the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education indicates that 4,000 students were subjected to the use of handcuffs in 2012.

While some state regulations specifically exempt law enforcement officers from these rules, far more state regulations are silent on whether or not the rules also apply to police officers who respond to calls within a school, as well as for SROs. As the federal case proceeds, the courts may be tasked with helping to clear up some of that gray area.

How Behaviors of Children with Emotional or Behavioral Disorders Can Be Misread by Police

According to recent data from the U.S. Department of Education, students with disabilities (those served by IDEA) represent a quarter of all students arrested and referred to law enforcement, even though they are only 12 percent of the overall student population. What’s more, 75 percent of students who are physically restrained at school have one or more disabilities.

The case in Kentucky included two children with mental illness, one with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), the other with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). These are two very different disabilities, and how behaviors are exhibited in children with these diagnoses will vary significantly from child to child.

Children with these diagnoses are typically categorized by schools as having an Emotional Disturbance (ED) or with an Emotional or Behavioral Disorder (EBD). Although ED is a term used in IDEA ’04 to classify these students with disabilities, many professionals prefer to use the EBD categorization because it recognizes that many of the behavioral difficulties these students experience do not necessarily have an emotional basis.

RELATED: 15 Principles for the Use of Restraint and Seclusion

Over the last few decades, schools have worked to include more students with EBD in traditional classrooms, and more general education teachers have looked for additional training on how to better work with students with differing abilities.

Externalized behaviors for students with EBD can include hyperactivity, tantrums, theft, causing or threatening physical harm, arguing, aggression or just simply violating societal norms. These behaviors can seem to come from out of nowhere, but chances are there was something or someone that triggered the behavior.

Police encountering these behaviors may interpret them as willful disobedience or as resistance to the responding officer. Yet the assertiveness that officers are taught to gain command over a situation can trigger the behavior of students (adults, too) with mental illness to escalate quickly.

Officers Need More Training on This Issue

Chances are that by the time an officer is called in to respond, the situation has already escalated. When verbal venom is turned toward school staff, or even toward the officer, it is human nature to reciprocate that anger. Training and lots of practice in verbal de-escalation helps officers maintain their professionalism and respond in a rational, helpful way.

RELATED: 5 Tips to Intervene More Appropriately with Students Exhibiting Concerning Behavior

The Crisis Prevention Institute uses the term Rational Detachment to train how officers and school staff can respond more appropriately to the behavior. One strategy for helping an officer maintain their Rational Detachment is to monitor their own thoughts as they intervene. This chart offers a few examples of thoughts that might indicate a loss of rational detachment vs. those that might help an officer as they intervene.

How to Apply Training Strategies to Incidents in Progress

Training can also help an officer in the decision making process. Consider the following strategies:

  • The safety of everyone involved should be the utmost concern. Sometimes the safest option is to allow the student to vent.
  • If the incident is happening in the view of other students, try to move the audience if it is possible to do it safely. Remember, it is often easier to ask 30 compliant students to leave than it is to rely on using force to remove the one person whose behavior is escalated.
  • Using a team approach is also very helpful. A partner can help you to move the audience, and they can also serve as a safety observer for you to help let you know when you might be losing a firm grip on your professionalism. Never be too proud to tap out and let your partner take over.
  • Even if you are the only officer responding to the scene, you might have options for team members among school staff. Of course, a best practice is to have a plan in place beforehand. If the school uses crisis intervention training, ask to sit in.
  • When offering directives, offer choices instead of ultimatums. Your aim is to defuse the situation and allow the student to make a competent decision. They may not be thinking rationally in the moment, so keeping their options as simple as possible will help guide them to making better choices and a better resolution.
  • Don’t expect immediate compliance. Because they are not in a rational space it may take some time for them to process the information and the directives you are giving them. The greatest gifts you can give are time and understanding. Show that you are there to listen and that you can help.

Use Physical Interventions and Restraint Very Carefully

The decision to use a physical intervention should not be taken lightly. While rare, sometimes efforts to de-escalate the behavior can prove to be ineffective. Officers should consult with departmental policy regarding use of force and response to resistance, and SROs should also be aware of any local or state policy regarding use of physical or mechanical restraint. In some states, SROs are considered school staff, so the school policy does apply to them.

Related Article: How Colleges Can Help Students with Autism Navigate Social Relationships

Once again, the aim for any intervention should be about maximizing safety for everyone involved. If the only reason for the intervention is to gain compliance, to save time or to punish the student, the officer should seek out less restrictive options.

Physical intervention should only be used as an absolute last resort, when the risk presented by the behavior outweighs the risk of the physical intervention. Always remember that you could be placing the student AND YOURSELF at a higher risk than the situation actually warrants.

Part of that risk consideration should be the physical attributes of the student presenting the behavior. An elementary level student will pose a lower risk to you than a high school student simply because of the size of the student. But also think about the risks that the intervention might have for the student.

Having a range of lower to higher risk level physical intervention options can also be helpful to finding a safe resolution. Seek out additional intervention options to add more tools to your intervention toolbox, and make sure to practice those skills regularly.

After the behavior is subsided, it can be very helpful to debrief with the student and with any other staff who helped to intervene. Debriefing should be about looking for solutions to prevent the behavior from happening in the future, and for ways to make sure that everyone can be safe.

You Might Have a Larger Audience Than You Think

Just about everyone has a cell phone. This means cameras are everywhere. And sadly, the only videos the public ever seems to see and share are the worst case scenarios. It is unfortunately rare to see videos of the thousands of helpful interactions police have every day with students and other members of the public.

Officers should assume that everything they do could be filmed by someone and posted to a host of different social media sites. What people see face-to-face in your community and on social media reflects not only on yourself but also your department and on your profession.

Robert Rettmann was formerly the director of research and communications for the Crisis Prevention Institute. He holds a master’s degree in exceptional education, specializing in finding ways for teachers to work with students with emotional and behavior disorders. He also is the chairman of his local Police and Fire Commission in Wisconsin.

Note: The views expressed by guest bloggers and contributors are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Campus Safety.

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