A lawsuit filed yesterday in Kentucky challenges the handcuffing of schoolchildren, especially those with disabilities, as a way of dealing with behavioral problems.
The American Civil Liberties Union, the Children’s Law Center, and Dinsmore & Shohl allege an eight year-old boy (S.R.) and a nine year-old girl (L.G.), two children with Attention Deficit Disorder and other disabilities, were “unlawfully restrained and handcuffed at school with excessive force and without necessity.”
“Because of the children’s small size in comparison to the handcuffs, which are designed for adults,” the deputy sheriff moved their arms behind their backs and “placed the handcuffs on their biceps (above the elbows).”
“This use and placement of handcuffs on small children is contrary to guidance on the safe use of handcuffs,” the complaint claims [PDF].
It further alleges that a deputy sheriff used a “pain compliance technique” on the girl, and that the same officer also threatened to put the boy in handcuffs again if he caused anymore problems.
L.G., who has experienced “mental health crises that required hospitalization,” and attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), was in fourth grade at John G. Carlisle Elementary School. At the time, she had an individual education plan designed to help her with her behavior.
On August 21, 2014, according to the complaint, Kenton County Deputy Sheriff Kevin Sumner, who was assigned as a school resource officer, received a call to help school personnel with L.G. She was “screaming and disrupting the classroom.” He put L.G. in the back of his car and took L.G. home to her mother. L.G. waited in the back of the car for an hour until her mother arrived.
Over a month later, on October 3, L.G. had difficulties again. She was sent to the in-school suspension room and then an isolation room. She tried to leave and was restrained by the principal and vice principal.
Sumner was called and arrived. He put L.G. in handcuffs and placed the handcuffs on her biceps above her elbows. She was in handcuffs for twenty minutes. (Later, Sumner wrote in his report she had attempted to “injure the school staff.”)
The nine year-old girl experienced a severe mental health crisis as she struggled against the handcuffs. The deputy sheriff had to call a medical crisis team. An ambulance took her to a hospital for a psychiatric assessment and treatment.
According to the complaint, L.G. was handcuffed by Sumner again on October 23.
“On that day, in the morning prior to the start of the school day, L.G. was walking on the stairs and through the hallways when she was supposed to be in the cafeteria. The Principal encouraged L.G. to go to the cafeteria and L.G. proceeded in that direction. Plaintiff L.G. stood outside the cafeteria under the watch of the Principal, who was waiting for L.G. to enter.”
The child stood outside the cafeteria, and Sumner approached. He told her to go to the cafeteria, which triggered a reaction.
L.G. ran away. Sumner went after her and told her to go inside the cafeteria. Next, Sumner and the principal restrained her as she “resisted and struggled.” When that did not have the effect desired, handcuffs were placed on her and she was left in a position “kneeling on the floor, handcuffed, and struggling for about thirty minutes until her mother arrived.”
The child’s mother witnessed Sumner “holding L.G’s hands over her head while handcuffed in a shoulder hyperextension position.” As the complaint notes, “This position is a pain compliance technique that is dangerous for children and is contrary to guidance on the safe restraint of children.”
L.G. was also screaming when her mother arrived and that was when she learned her child was put in handcuffs. (Later, Sumner claimed in his report that L.G. had tried to assault him.)
ACLU Video: Third Grader, “S.R.,” Handcuffed in School
The other named in the suit, child, S.R., was a third grader at Latonia Elementary SChool. He has post-traumatic stress disorder and ADHD. He has difficulty complying with directions because of limited brain function.
On November 13, 2014, he was removed from class and sent to the vice principal’s office. He attempted to leave the office. School personnel kept the door closed, and the vice principal and special education teacher had to restrain him twice, “for about four to five minutes each time.”
Again, S.R. tried to leave. He also said he needed the bathroom.
S.R.’s mother was called. She spoke to S.R. and calmed him down. His mother then requested S.R. be allowed to use the bathroom. The school let him go to the bathroom. When he returned, Sumner, who was also assigned as a school resource officer at this elementary, had arrived.
Sumner gave S.R. multiple directions, including a command to sit down. The deputy sheriff maintains S.R. “swung his arm and attempted to strike [him] with his elbow.” He had to block S.R.’s elbow with his hand.
S.R. was handcuffed for fifteen minutes.
The video, released by the ACLU on Monday, shows Sumner saying, “You can do what we ask you to or you can suffer the consequences,” and, “You know you’re … going to behave the way you’re supposed to or you suffer the consequences. It’s your decision to behave this way. If you want the handcuffs off, you’re going to have to behave and ask me nicely … Sit backdown … Ask nicely … Look at me … It’s up to you if you want them off or not.”
The boy cries out in pain. “My arm! Oww, oww!” he says.
His mother came to take him home, and as she left, “Sumner told them that he would return to the school with his handcuffs if S.R. did not behave.”
The lawsuit seeks an injunction to prevent police from “authorizing or employing the unnecessary and excessive use of physical restraint and handcuffing” against children with disabilities in the future. It demands that police be compelled to revise policies, practices, and trainings, which are “deliberately indifferent” to the well-being of children.
It claims police violated the children’s “right to be free from unreasonable seizures and excessive force, and that the Kenton County Sheriff’s Office continues to maintain, with deliberate indifference, “an unlawful policy or custom of imposing unreasonable seizures and excessive force on schoolchildren.”
Children like L.G. and S.R. are particularly susceptible to injury because of their disabilities. As a result, the complaint accuses Sumner of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Kentucky passed regulation in 2012 to limit the use of restraints, such as handcuffs, to “situations where ‘student’s behavior poses an imminent danger of physical harm to self or others’ and less restrictive behavioral intervention cannot stop such imminent danger of physical harm.”
In 2009, the United States Government Accountability Office released a study, which documented instances when restraint and seclusion had been used in schools between 1990 and 2009. Twenty times the restraint or seclusion had caused death. Nearly all of the instances cited involved children with disabilities.
“Nationally, students with disabilities make up 12 percent of students in public schools, but are 75 percent of the students who are physically restrained by adults in their schools, according to the U.S. Department of Education,” according to the ACLU. “These disciplinary practices also feed into the ‘school-to-prison pipeline,’ where children are funneled out of public schools and into the criminal justice system. Many of these children have disabilities, but instead of receiving necessary educational and counseling services, they are often punished and pushed out.”