DOJ weighs in on handcuffed elementary students case

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boy with handcuffs around biceps, arms held behind his backThe Department of Justice filed a Statement of Interest October 2 in a highly publicized case that brought renewed attention to the role of police officers when interacting with children with disabilities in schools.

“The approximately 19,000 school resource officers (‘SROs’) in schools across the United States have a powerful role,” the amicus brief states [PDF]. “SROs can partner with schools to help maintain a safe and positive school environment — when their role is clearly defined and they are trained to perform it properly.

“However, children — particularly children with disabilities — risk experiencing lasting and severe consequences if SROs unnecessarily criminalize school-related misbehavior by taking a disproportionate law enforcement response to minor disciplinary infractions.”

The lawsuit centers on two elementary school children in Kenton County, Kentucky.  This video allegedly shows SRO Kevin Sumner handcuffing an eight-year-old, identified as S.R. in court papers, to a chair. Being that S.R. weighs 52 pounds, the handcuffs fit around his biceps.

S.R. allegedly swung at the officer and was removed from his classroom for disruptive behavior. Previously, he was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

L.G, a 9-year-old girl with ADHD, was also handcuffed on multiple occasions by the school’s SROs, once for more than 20 minutes.

Although the DOJ does take a stance on the case’s merits, it details its preferred framework for analyzing Americans with Disabilities Act, unreasonable seizure and excessive force claims brought by students against SROs.

As to the ADA claims, the DOJ argues that SROs must reasonably modify their policies to ensure students are not punished for behaviors manifesting from their disabilities.

In regard to the Fourth and 14th Amendment claims, the DOJ contends courts should consider the child’s age and the fact that the incident took place in a school setting, in addition to traditional factors: the crime’s severity, the extent of the safety treat, and whether the suspect is resisting arrest or attempting to escape.

“The role of SROs should be carefully circumscribed to ensure they do not become involved in routine disciplinary matters,” the brief states. “SROs should use their law enforcement powers judiciously, to focus on safety, to avoid disability-based discrimination, and to avoid unnecessary criminalization of childhood behavior and perpetuation of the school-to-prison pipeline.”

The ACLU of Kentucky, the Children’s Law Center and Dinsmore & Shohl LLP are representing the children in the lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky.