The (legal) handcuffing of disabled students by Kentucky sheriff deputy

The (legal) handcuffing of disabled students by Kentucky sheriff deputy

The ACLU is suing a Kentucky sheriff for restraining children with handcuffs. When schools turn to the police to manage "rowdy" children no one wins

Child being restrained by Kentucky Sheriff Deputy - CNN.COM Screen Shot
Child being restrained by Kentucky Sheriff Deputy - CNN.COM Screen Shot

WASHINGTON, August 9, 2015 –  Last week, two children with learning disabilities were handcuffed by a Kentucky sheriff who now faces a federal lawsuit. The American Civil LIberties Union says the deputy handcuffed the elementary school children who were acting out as a result of their hyperactivity disorder and other disabilities

The ACLU is suing Kenton County sheriff’s Deputy Kevin Sumner, who works as a school resource officer at Latonia Elementary School in Covington for handcuffing an 8-year-old boy and a 9-year-old girl.

Both children have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and where acting out in a manner .

Education then and now

The Kenton County Sheriff’s Office issued a statement in support of Sumner, stressing that “all the facts and circumstances have not yet been presented.”

“School superintendents and administrators want, and need, to provide a safe environment for students and teachers. School personnel are permitted, like any other citizen, to request the assistance of a law enforcement deputy.

When a learning disabled child is rowdy and disrupting the classroom, what should a teacher do? The question more often is, what is done?

The answer is alarming. In the Kentucky incidents, the teachers put the students into the hands of a sheriff’s deputy. An 8-year-old boy refused to sit down when the deputy told him to, and he attempted to hit the deputy.

The boy was then handcuffed for 15 minutes.

A 9-year-old girl refused to follow a teacher’s instructions and tried to leave the classroom. The deputy then handcuffed her.

Child experts in this area recommend tactics like de-escalation, verbal calming and teaching children self-regulation techniques.

Nonetheless, schools across the country have are using physical tactics, and many have gone to bringing in sheriffs’ offices and municipal police departments to handle behavior problems. A 2010 report by the Center for Problem Oriented Policing indicates that one-third of the sheriffs’ offices nationwide and nearly 17,000 police officers serve in nearly half of all schools.

Helen Keller: Breaking down walls of prejudice

These officers are typically tasked to deal with problems such as bullying, underage drinking, bomb threats, school vandalism, break-ins and traffic congestion. Nonetheless, these “school resource officers” are handling all kinds of behavior problems. Many child experts believe that having police interact with young children with disabilities is a bad idea.

A 2015 study by the U.S. Department of Education indicates that about 52,500 children each year are subjected to physical restraint (being held down by someone), while 4,000 are subjected to mechanical restraint, such as straps, handcuffs, bungee-cords and even duct tape.

Seclusion, different from a “time out,” is also a tactic of choice, where a student is separated from the class, against his or her will, in a room he or she cannot leave, often with a locked door.

Data released last summer from ProPublica and NPR (National Public Radio) reveals that restraint practices were used more than 267,000 times during the 2012 school year, including pinning students face down or tying them up or locking them alone in dark rooms.

There were 7,600 incidents of mechanical restraints. The report makes clear that incidents are highly unreported.

Since 2012, hundreds of children have been physically injured, and at least 20 have died. Injuries have ranged from bloody and broken noses to broken bones.

One Iowa boy was tied to a lunch table. Another 13-year-old boy hanged himself with a rope after school officials shut him alone in a room. Beyond the physical, there are clearly emotional and psychological injuries that attach to these tactics.

The ACLU refers to the problem as the “school-to-prison” pipeline, suggesting that these events are a sustained part of a “chain” that primes children not for success, but for a future of incarceration.

In 2011, a Virginia boy with autism had his hand and foot broken while being forced into a seclusion room.

In, August 2014, after a thorough investigation, the U.S. Department of Education found that two Virginia schools thwarted the education of students with emotional difficulties by regularly subjecting them to seclusion and physical restraint.

Over 25 percent of Virginia’s school systems admitted in a survey last year that they had no policies at all on restraints or seclusion.

This year, Virginia passed a bill requiring state leaders to set limits on how public schools can restrain or isolate students. It requires the state education board to adopt regulations that follow federal guidelines.

Restraining and secluding students for any reason remains perfectly legal under federal law, despite an almost 100 percent consensus that these tactics should rarely be used.

Over the years there have been numerous attempts to pass federal legislation restricting restraints. None passed. The U.S. Department of Education has issued guidelines to reduce the tactics’ use, but they are voluntary. Some states have passed regulations, but these vary from state to state. As a result, dangerous techniques are illegal in some places but routinely used in others.

Recently Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., proposed legislation to strictly limit the use of restraints and even to ban the use of seclusion in public schools.

The legislation has wide support among groups that represent people with disabilities.

Opponents of the legislation say policy decisions about the practices are best left to state and local leaders.

Advocates argue the evidence: states and districts do not create enough safeguards on their own. Despite years of public concern, schools in most states can still restrain children even when there is no imminent danger.

School administrators say they need to be able to seclude and restrain students in order to keep them, other students and school staff safe.

Recognizing a child’s needs often requires following your heart

Dan Domenech, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said,

“It is used when a child is acting out in a way, for example, where they are in the process of clawing their eyes out, or tearing their hair out, or smashing their head up against the wall. And they need to be restrained so they can be stopped from hurting themselves. Or when a child will attack another child. Or when a child will attack a member of the staff.”

Cyndi Pitonyak, a special education coordinator in Virginia, argues, “The chances of getting injured by trying to physically restrain somebody are much greater than the chances of getting injured while trying to calm them down.”

Her district uses an approach called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, which assists in identifying triggers for dangerous behavior by “most-at-risk” students. A detailed prevention plan is developed and taught to teachers and aides.

Over time, as students learn better ways to respond to frustration and grow comfortable with the school routine, they need fewer accommodations.


Fascinating fact: these types of tactics are mostly illegal in places like nursing homes and state hospitals that receive federal funding.

CNN.COM contributed to the factual elements of the Kentucky incident.

Paul A. Samakow is an attorney licensed in Maryland and Virginia, and has been practicing since 1980.  He represents injury victims and routinely battles insurance companies and big businesses that will not accept full responsibility for the harms and losses they cause. He can be reached at any time by calling 1-866-SAMAKOW (1-866-726-2569), via email, or through his website

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