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 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.

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

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 detatchment 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 ult
    imatums. 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 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.

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