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Why Handcuffing Schoolkids is a Path to Criminalization

Earlier this year, a Pittsburgh family filed a federal lawsuit against the city’s school district after their first-grader was handcuffed in class.

The seven-year-old, who was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, was handcuffed by a Pittsburgh school resource officer at an elementary school after throwing a tantrum in class, according to an account of the suit, which was filed  as a class action  in  an alleged violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

The lawsuit claims a teacher “placed his knee on [the child’s] back while he lay on the floor,” and another time “reportedly choked” him. The suit maintained that the school principal, “physically prevented [the child] from leaving a small room.”

In Orlando, Fl., a police officer was recently fired for restraining a six-year-old with flex cuffs. In Georgia, a six-year-old was cuffed and taken to the police station. There have also been incidents reported in Mississippi, St. Louis, New York City, Kentucky and Chicago.

ABC News reported last month that FBI statistics show between 2013 and 2018 at least 30,467 children under the age of 10 were arrested in the United States. The numbers skyrocket for children between the ages of 10 and 12, with 266,321 arrested during the same six-year time span, according to the data.

There is no question that young students can involve themselves in serious violent crime.

In 2018, according to ABC News, 155 children under the age of 10 were arrested for possessing weapons, 22 were arrested for rape, 11 for robbery, 56 for arson, and 289 for larceny and theft, including 15 for vehicle theft. Criminal justice referrals are necessary in those instances.

Most of those crimes were not committed in school. However, according to the U.S. Department of Education, in 2015-2016 over 290,600 cases in schools were referred to law enforcement or resulted in arrest.

When a school allows a school resource officer (SRO)—a “specially” trained police officer assigned to the school—to arrest a student or refer a student to law enforcement or juvenile court as a form of discipline—they are using the juvenile justice system as a stand-in for school discipline and the consequences can be dire.

This process of moving disruptive students from the principal’s office to the courthouse is known as the “school-to-prison pipeline.” When young people are criminalized for their behavior in schools, exposed to law enforcement—and the rest of the criminal justice system—at an early age, they become more likely to interact with the criminal justice system down the line.

A 2009 study from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville found that students in schools with SROs were almost three times more likely to be arrested.

The response to heavy-handed discipline is often that some of today’s students require extreme means to conform. Teachers and administrators lament an increase in disrespect, disruption and defiance in the classroom, even among the youngest students.

But does handcuffing students bring about the school’s intended result?

Research on the subject suggests no. Harsh discipline, including arrest, may actually do more harm than good.

“Physical force as a form of discipline rocks a child’s world and breeds a general distrust for adults and authority figures.” wrote Dr. Kathryn Seifert in Psychology Today.

It may also teach children that the use of force is the best way to settle disputes; in other words, aggression breeds more aggression,”

Karol Mason, president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, told ABC News, “There are a lot of studies that talk about the effect of trauma on child development; and arresting a seven-year-old, putting them in handcuffs and taking them out of school, that’s trauma, and trauma disrupts normal development.”

Matt Mangino

Matthew T. Mangino

Mason continued: “Is this child going to definitely wind up in the criminal justice system? No.

“But are you increasing the likelihood that it could happen because of this? Yes.”

Matthew T. Mangino, a former district attorney in Lawrence County, Pa., and a former member of the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole, has been a contributor to The Crime Report. He is currently of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C.,. This column originally appeared in the Beaver County Times/Ellwood City Ledger, courtesy of GateHouse Media. It is reprinted here with permission.