In recent news, you may have heard the story of a 10-year-old boy from Florida, arrested at school for allegedly attacking an educator. Words from his stunned mother during the ordeal were enough to stick in anyone’s mind.
“He has autism. He doesn’t know what’s going on,” she said in a heartbreaking video of her child being handcuffed and arrested by a school resource officer. “He’s scared to death. He’s 10-years-old.”
The boy had had ongoing issues with his paraprofessional educator, who was assigned as part of an individualized education program (IEP) for his condition. On 1 occasion, the boy began “kicking and scratching and punching” the educator in response to being sent to timeout. For this, the boy spent a night in a juvenile detention center.
While it’s horrific to think that this can happen to a 10-year-old schoolchild – not least a child with disabilities – this is sadly 1 of many similar incidents. The most recent Civil Rights Data Collection report by the Department of Education (DOE), which examined school discipline, restraint, and seclusion, revealed disturbing rates of all 3 issues among minority children. In the disabilities group, students are more than twice as likely to be suspended. And although they represent only 12 percent of the student population, they account for 25 percent of arrests.
Children Criminalized ‘Through a Police Lens’
In this Florida case, the boy and his mother received support from the Autism Society of America (ASA). The Society also assisted with legal counsel when the paraprofessional pressed charges.
“It appears the school’s responses are beyond wrong and evil,” said Scott Badesch, president of ASA. “It is a tremendous failure by two allegedly responsible institutions: the police and the school.”
In fact, this failure is the crux of the problem. Children with disabilities are being criminalized by educators – even for issues warranting minor disciplinary action – because they have allowed law enforcement to have excessive involvement.
Roughly 19,000 school resource officers (also known as SROs) are employed across the country, according to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). Intended to “protect” schools, these police officers have dramatically increased in numbers over recent decades and now work in 29 percent of schools in the U.S.
Though they are technically trained as law enforcement officers, SROs are expected to follow strict guidelines pertaining to working with children. But only in 12 states. Even in these areas, and certainly elsewhere, many SROs “view children’s behavior through a police lens,” says Miranda Johnson, associate director of the Education Law and Policy Institute at Loyola University, Chicago.
“Officers in schools often lack understanding of adolescent development, de-escalation strategies for children and youths, and the needs and rights of students with disabilities,” she said. “They therefore respond to routine school situations using the law enforcement tactics in which they were trained.”
In other words, these officers are prepared to ignore the student’s individual needs; instead judging their behavior strictly by the codes of the criminal justice system.
Why Are SROs Failing Our Kids?
The Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights currently has over 450 open investigations into discrimination in schools. This raises enormous concern about violations of students’ civil rights and shows the grim extent of unnecessary arrests.
According to Johnson, 1 reason for this could be the stigma attached to the job. “Being stationed in a school is generally not a sought-after position for an officer seeking upward mobility in the police force,” she said.
Nevertheless, SROs represent a significant proportion of our schools, and there is a clear disparity between their total population and those specially trained. In its Statement of Interest, the U.S. Department of Justice stated that SROs should, at the very least, be trained to recognize disabilities. Youth rights activists agree that SROs severely lack the training needed to interact with children the way they should.
“School resource officers should understand and expect that they will be called in, primarily, to interact with kids with disabilities,” said Susan Mizner, the disability counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “because our school systems really haven’t learned how to accommodate those disabilities and to work productively with most of these kids.”
Are We Right in Penalizing Kids with Disabilities?
As Johnson points out, SROs are stationed in schools upon parents’ requests: to make schools safer in the wake of recent intrusions and mass shootings. But clearly, their readiness to detain children inappropriately does not meet this goal. As a result, SROs have become the subject of widespread controversy – and rightly so.
“The consequences for students can be devastating,” she said, citing another incident involving a second-grader with ADHD, handcuffed after throwing a tantrum and “sobbing uncontrollably.”
Diane Smith Howard, senior staff attorney at the National Disability Rights Network (NDRN), emphasizes that entering a juvenile justice system can have a profound effect on vulnerable children. “Kids start to identify: ‘I'm a criminal. I'm a delinquent’,” she said. “It sends a really strong message that you don’t belong here at school.”
As well as arrest, children with disabilities can face restraint or seclusion; even on an ongoing basis. Another incident involved a child with cerebral palsy. Similar to ADHD, cerebral palsy is a neurological disorder (caused by birth injury due to medical error) affecting communication and learning abilities. This child was forced into isolation, for hours at a time, in a restroom.
Very far from promoting safety, this treatment more closely resembles abuse.
Schools Just Need to Do Better: Plain and Simple
Most advocacy groups agree that SROs may often misinterpret their responsibilities to include routine school discipline, in which they should have no part. Johnson suggests that, if we must have SROs in schools, tighter regulation is the key.
Although SRO training varies from state to state, there are federal guidelines in place, and districts need to better prepare officers for inevitable experiences with disabilities.
Guidelines aside, it goes without saying that these children need support for their behaviors, not punishment. All children deserve to be safe, of course, at the establishment where they spend most of their time – 1 that’s responsible for protecting and nurturing them.
The mother in the Florida case hopes that experiences like hers will help expose the risks of zero-tolerance behavior toward children with disabilities. “Now, maybe something will be changed,” she said. “Now, maybe somebody will believe me and other parents when we say our kids are being mistreated.”