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Handcuffing 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.

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 similar cases 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.

View statistics & charts on this topic.

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

“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.”

RELATED: How to Manage Students with Behavioral Issues

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.

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 EBD 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.

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