A federal lawsuit out of Kentucky has placed law enforcement in the spotlight once again, raising concerns about overzealous disciplinary policies carried out against special-needs students when they commit minor infractions.
The lawsuit — filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Children’s Law Center and law firm Dinsmore & Shohl — alleges that Kevin Sumner, a deputy sheriff and school resources officer in Kenton, Kentucky, violently restrained a boy and girl during three separate incidents last fall, shackling their arms behind their back each time. Both children have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Court documents say that Sumner handcuffed the youngsters for at least 15 minutes while they sat in the principal’s office crying and yelling. A video released by ACLU shows Sumner belting orders at the boy shortly after placing him in shackles. The girl’s mother also recalled seeing the officer holding her daughter’s hands “over her head while handcuffed in a shoulder hypertension position.” The young lady, who also has post-traumatic stress disorder, later underwent a psychiatric assessment and treatment at a local hospital.
The lawsuit, filed this week, alleges Sumner violated the children’s civil rights and the Americans with Disabilities Act. The officer in question may also be in violation of a 2012 Kentucky resolution that prohibits school officials from using handcuffs and other mechanical restraints on students.
“Shackling children is not OK. It is traumatizing, and in this case it is also illegal,” Susan Mizner, disability counsel for the ACLU, said in a statement. “Using law enforcement to discipline students with disabilities only serves to traumatize children. It makes behavioral issues worse and interferes with the school’s role in developing appropriate educational and behavioral plans for them.”
What allegedly transpired in Kentucky bears a striking similarity to other cases unfolding across the country involving brute police force against students on school grounds.
During one episode last May, a Houston police officer struck a 16-year-old student more than a dozen times with a baton after an exchange outside of the principal’s office. Earlier this year, a law enforcement official in Louisville, Kentucky allegedly punched a 13-year-old student in the face for cutting the lunch line. Reports also say he placed another young person in a chokehold until they became unconscious.
Experts say police officers assigned to schools often use a tactic known as “restraint and seclusion” that involves pinning down students against their will and isolating them. And as seen in the Kentucky school case, young people with special needs often bear the brunt of police force on campus. A 2014 Propublica investigation found that three-fourths of students who were victims of “restraint and seclusion” had physical, emotional, or intellectual disabilities.
Beyond traumatizing students, groups like the ACLU say that such punitive measures strengthen the school-to-prison pipeline — policies that push children with learning disabilities, history of poverty, abuse and neglect out of the classroom and into the juvenile and criminal justice system.
Special-needs children stand at great risk of falling into this trap because of school officials’ propensity to levy punishment against them without considering their mental ailments. The Mayo Clinic says students with mental disorders often display out-of-control behavior, have difficulty concentrating, and cause harm to themselves and others — actions that can be misinterpreted as intentionally malicious.
If school officials don’t violently detain students in those situations, they may suspend them. Across the country, school officials sent more than five percent of elementary school children with disabilities home during the 2011–2012 academic year — more than double the rate of their counterparts, according to a report compiled by University of California, Los Angeles’ Civil Rights Project.
By criminalizing behavior related to their mental illness, schools marginalize special-needs children, ultimately increasing their likelihood of entering the prison system to five times that of their counterparts. Such was the case for Kayleb, an autistic black male six grader whom a Lynchburg, Virginia court charged with disorderly conduct after he kicked a trash can and attempted to break from the clutch of an officer on the scene.
While wrap-around programs could give special-needs students the additional support necessary to avoid the prison system, they often don’t receive that kind of help.
A group of students and teachers in California, for instance, sued the Compton Unified School District for what they described as a student’s right to access school-based mental health support and other services. In Idaho, state officials settled a 35-year lawsuit and announced plans to revamp the state’s mental health system so it could better special-needs children with community-based services. A group of children and their families filed a similar lawsuit against Washington state last year, alleging that its mental health care system failed to prevent their repeated hospitalization, incarceration, and social isolation.
“For a long time we have needed to retool the children’s mental health system, to make home and community services the cornerstone of care. The plaintiff children cannot wait for a different economic forecast, they need this help now,” Regan Bailey of Disability Rights Washington, co-counsel for the plaintiffs, said in a statement.
Students’ mental health notwithstanding, the issue of excessive force by police in schools isn’t endemic to Kentucky. Data collected by advocacy organizations shows at least 28 students have been seriously injured — and shot to death in one case — over the past five years by school-resource officers, who provide security on K-12 campuses. Students of color have been disproportionately affected by what experts describe as a lack of oversight and officer training.