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Handcuffs in Hallways: Hundreds of elementary students arrested at U.S. schools

Hundreds of kids arrested at schools
Handcuffs in Hallways: Hundreds of elementary students arrested at U.S. schools 06:19

"Don't make a wrong move," the officer said as he pinned the struggling subject to the ground. "Period." 

The officer tightened the handcuffs around the subject's thin wrists. 

"Ow, ow, ow, it really hurts," the subject exclaimed. 

The officer pressed his weight into the subject's small body while school staff watched it all unfold. The person he was restraining was 7 years old. 

"If you, my friend, are not acquainted with the juvenile justice system, you will be very shortly," the officer told the child. 

Earlier that day, the child allegedly spit at a teacher. Now, he was in handcuffs and a police officer was saying he could end up in jail. 

That child — a second grader with autism at a North Carolina school — was ultimately pinned on the floor for 38 minutes, according to body camera video of the incident. At one point, court records say, the officer put his knee in the child's back.  

CBS News is not identifying the North Carolina child to protect his privacy.  

Similar scenes have played out in viral incidents: police officers arresting young children like him at school, often violently. 

In 2018, a 10-year-old with autism was pinned face down and cuffed in Denton, Texas.  

Another boy with autism, just 11 years old, was handcuffed and dragged out of school and forced into a sheriff's deputy's car in Colorado in 2021.  

And that same year, officers handcuffed and screamed at a 5-year-old who had wandered away from school.  

There are many more cases of young children arrested in school — cases that don't make headlines, according to a CBS News analysis of the latest data from the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights. 

More than 700 children were arrested in U.S. elementary schools during the 2017-2018 school year alone, according to CBS News' analysis. 

Experts tell CBS News the fact that young children are arrested at all is troubling.  

Ron Applin, chief of police for Atlanta Public Schools, says they've never arrested an elementary school child in his six years running the department. 

"I've never seen a situation or a circumstance in my six years where an elementary school student had to be arrested," Applin said. "We've never done it. I don't see where it would happen." 

But it does happen elsewhere — and to some kids more than others, CBS News' analysis showed.  

Unequal treatment 

Children with documented disabilities were four times more likely to be arrested at school, according to CBS News' analysis of the 2017-2018 Education Department data. 

Federal law requires schools to have a plan, known as an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), for dealing with the needs of every student with disabilities.  

Those plans help schools understand how to care for children with disabilities, said Alacia Gerardi, the mother of the North Carolina child who was arrested. Without this plan, she said, a police officer might misunderstand her son's behavior. 

"I believe a lot of it is a misunderstanding with children who are struggling, that they believe that in general, that behavior indicates intention. And when you're dealing with a child who's going through a difficult time, any child, that is not the case."

Anyone working with children with disabilities must understand how to respond when a child with an emotional or behavioral disorder acts out, according to Dr. Sonya Mathies-Dinizulu, who teaches psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago. 

In a crisis, children need someone to "be there to help the kid start to de-escalate and help soothe," said Mathies-Dinizulu, who works with children who are exposed to trauma. 

Black students are even more disproportionately affected. They made up nearly half of all arrests at elementary schools during the 2017-2018 school year, CBS News' analysis showed. But they accounted for just 15% of the student population in those schools. 

Those disparities could be explained, at least in part, by the mentalities of the officers who work in schools, according to Professor Aaron Kupchik, who teaches sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware.  

In a 2020 study, Kupchik and his colleagues analyzed interviews with 73 School Resource Officers, or SROs. Nearly all the officers interviewed said their primary mission was to keep the school safe. The difference, Kupchik said, was who those officers felt they needed to protect the school from.  

Researcher: “There are clear and consistent problems with putting police in schools” 04:04

SROs who worked with low-income students and students of color "define the threat as students themselves," Kupchik said. "Whereas the SROs who work in wealthier, whiter school areas define the threat as something external that can happen to the children." 

"It's an external threat for the more privileged kids," Kupchik said. "As opposed to students in the schools with more students of color, low-income students, where they're seen as the threats themselves." 

One such student arrested was an 11-year-old Black student with disabilities in Riverside County, California. CBS News is referring to him only as "C.B." to protect his privacy.

Police alleged he threw a rock at a staffer, though a police report said she was uninjured. The next day, he was handcuffed after refusing to go to the principal's office over the incident.  

A lawsuit filed on C.B.'s behalf alleges his arrest was part of a pattern: police getting involved for "low-level and disability-related behaviors" that could be handled by teachers or administrators.    

Police handling school discipline, not school staff   

Gerardi said she couldn't understand why her son was handcuffed face down on the floor.  

She said school staff called saying her son was having a hard time that day. She later got a text asking her to come pick him up.  

What she saw when she arrived shocked her. 

"At that point, I had no idea why [he was handcuffed]," she said. "I couldn't fathom in my mind what could possibly have occurred to make handcuffing a 7-year-old face down on the floor necessary." 

She said the school staff knew her son had been struggling. He was in a treatment program where he received special support. He had an IEP on file, which documented his needs.  

Yet when teachers disciplined her son for repeatedly tapping his pencil — something she said he does out of anxiety — the situation escalated. He spit on a teacher, and the police officer was called. The boy ended up in handcuffs. 

"I have a real hard time understanding that these adults don't have a better solution than to do this," she said. "The long-term effects, the trauma of putting a child in a completely powerless situation, even physically over their body and causing them harm based on a behavior is ludicrous to me."  

After his mother arrived, the officer allowed her to take him home.  

"It was a very rude awakening, because when I arrived there and I picked my son up off the floor, he was limp, completely limp," she said. "He was just exhausted. I didn't know what had happened, but after I saw the video, it was very apparent that his little body just couldn't take being put in that position for that length of time. He had his chest against the floor, his hands behind his back. This man's applying pressure against his back" 

Alex Heroy, attorney for Gerardi's family, said the police shouldn't have gotten involved in the first place. 

"A lot of officers don't want to be the first line when it comes to a mental health crisis," Heroy said. "They don't have as much training as the teachers in the school, for example, so they shouldn't insert themselves for one, and they really should be there for support." 

The officer in that arrest defended his actions.  

The officer "knew nothing about [the child] prior to the day in question, including his age or medical history," his attorney said in a statement sent to CBS News. 

"Unequivocally, he never intended to cause any harm to [the child] and did the best he could with the knowledge and training he possessed at the time, seeking only to help [the child] and diffuse the situation safely for everyone, including [the child]," the statement said. 

The child's school district declined to comment, saying the case had been settled.  

The child wasn't charged with a crime, despite what the officer repeatedly said during the incident. 

Federal reaction

Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, said schools should do everything they can to prevent young kids from ending up arrested in school.  

CBS News shared the results of its analysis of the Education Department data with Lhamon. Though she said there could be times in which arresting a 7-year-old is acceptable, she said it should not be the norm.  

"That should not be the way we expect to treat our students," Lhamon said. "And if you find yourself there as a school community, you should be evaluating hard whether you needed to and what steps you can take to make sure you don't find yourself there again." 

Education Department official: “There is a child who is forever harmed” by arrest at school 19:14

When asked if the Department of Education is doing enough to prevent arrests like the North Carolina child's, she said, "You're never doing enough if a child is harmed."  

"When we send a child to law enforcement, we are sending a very deleterious governmental message," Lhamon said. "That's scary. I want very much for that to be minimized and for it to take place only in those circumstances where it's absolutely necessary." 

Lhamon called the video of the North Carolina child's arrest "enormously distressing" and said it was something she'd never forget.  

"There's very little that I saw in that video that is acceptable, and there's very little on that video that is consistent with federal civil rights obligations," she said.  

The U.S. Department of Education issued new guidance on school discipline in July, requiring school officials to evaluate a student with disabilities before disciplining them.  

Department of Education spokespeople said the agency wants schools to be responsible for the actions of their SROs, even if those officers are employees of a local police department.  

"They are responsible for the actions of school resource officers that they employ and that they contract with in their schools, and that the civil rights obligation extends to them," Lhamon said. 

Lhamon described the disproportionate impact on children with disabilities and children of color as "deeply distressing." 

"It's a deep, deep concern for all of us," Lhamon said. "And it has been over a distressingly long period of time that we see students with disabilities disproportionately referred to law enforcement. We see students of color disproportionately referred to law enforcement." 

On Thursday, Congresswoman Sylvia Garcia, from Houston, introduced a resolution to encourage local and state governments to prohibit the physical restraining of elementary school-age children. 

"One minute you're hugging your child saying goodbye, they're off to school. The next you get a call that your child has been restrained, put in handcuffs or zip ties as some form of discipline" she said on the House floor.

"This is flat wrong. It's inhumane and it must stop," she added

The resolution is non-binding, but Garcia hopes that if passed it will lead states to implement rules, legislation and training to stop physical restraints as a form of discipline.

Training needed

An SRO's training can be critical, according to Applin. He helped change the way Atlanta SROs interact with children.  

After being in the top 10 nationally in elementary arrest rates, Georgia changed its approach in 2018. They trained their SROs to focus on helping students to reach graduation, rather than making arrests.  

Part of that new SRO training involved "making a switch from being a warrior to a guardian," Applin said. 

"One of the things that's stressed to my officers is that we're student focused," Applin said. "The whole idea behind why we're here is to create an environment where students can learn, teachers can teach. We're not here to criminalize our students."  

Virginia has taken a different approach. Schools there arrested kids in elementary schools at five times the rate for the U.S. overall during the 2017-2018 school year, according to CBS News' analysis of Education Department data.  

Donna Michaelis, who manages the Virginia Center for School and Campus Safety, said Virginia law requires school officials to report any crimes that occur at school — even minor ones like fights, vandalism, or disorderly conduct.  

"In that list of criminal offenses, they are very serious things," Michaelis said. "It's not bullying. It is malicious wounding. It is kidnapping. It is threats to harm staff. They are serious crimes: threats to bomb [or] drugs."  

Data from the Virginia Department of Education shows that, during the 2020-2021 school year, there were 24 bomb or other threats reported. There were nearly 700 reported threats to either students or staff.  

The data doesn't contain any references to "malicious wounding" or kidnapping. 

The most common offense in the data is "interference with school operations," which made up nearly 40% of the 14,000 incidents recorded in the data for that one school year.  

Do SROs really make kids safer?    

Amid the epidemic of school shootings in the US, many districts have looked to SROs to keep kids safe. 

In late 2019, schools in Harford County, Maryland, added three more SROs to its elementary schools. A year later, the Michigan House voted to boost funding for school resource officers in the wake of the Oxford High School shooting that December.  

And in 2022, after the Uvalde, Texas, shooting, some Fort Worth city council members argued schools needed more officers to protect kids from future attacks.  

But Kupchik's research shows SROs don't make kids safer.  

"There is some disagreement [among experts]," Kupchik said. "There have been some studies showing that police officers in schools can prevent some crime and misbehavior, but there are far greater numbers of studies finding the opposite, that they either have no impact or in some cases can increase crime. What they do all show consistently is that while we're not sure about any benefits, there are clear and consistent problems with putting police in schools."  

Kupchik said schools with more police have more suspensions and more arrests.  

"We see greater numbers of arrests and not necessarily for things like guns or drugs or what we're all afraid of," Kupchik said. "But for more minor things that are unfortunate, but perhaps don't need to result in an arrest record. Something like two kids getting in a fight after school." 

Some schools have taken a similar view. Schools across the country, including those in Denver, San Francisco, Fremont, CA, and Chicago have voted to remove SROs.  

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, Minneapolis Public Schools removed SROs from their hallways. The result: a dramatic drop in student referrals to law enforcement, and a shift toward "restorative outcomes" rather than arrests.  

Nearly every parent interviewed by CBS News for this story said their children were permanently traumatized by these experiences.  

"The trauma from this has truly created PTSD," Gerardi said. "So, day by day, especially if he is physically hurt in any way — even accidentally — it can trigger a real PTSD response that affects the entire family. And, of course, it affects him." 

Part of the problem, she said, is that he doesn't understand what happened to him.  

"It was an instantaneous 'fight or flight' response, and we were there for literally years," she said. "So to try to calm his nervous system down … has taken a lot a lot of intense work. And it was terrifying. We're going we were going up against a police department, a city, and we live in a small town." 

The problems only worsened when her son began running away. The very people she needed to help find him were those who harmed him: the police.  

"After you go through something like this, it's hard to have trust that a sane person is going to show up that understands how to deal with a child," she said.  

Other parents told CBS News similar stories. The father of one child told CBS News Colorado his child, who was arrested at age 5 and had documented disabilities, "regressed significantly" after the incident and even had to move to a residential treatment facility to receive more intensive care.  

Mathies-Dinizulu said those effects can last a child's entire life.  

"Children in particular, they could be incredibly resilient," Mathies-Dinizulu said. "But it's something that they will never forget. And because of that, if something traumatic or scary happens to them in the future — that type of accumulated stress from what happened at school, now it's happening again in another place." 

“It’s like a shaming process”: Child psychiatrist explains lasting impacts of a child's arrest 03:01

The effects of that trauma can warp the way a child sees the world, Mathies-Dinizulu said.  

"They may feel like they're not worthy, or they may feel like they're bad," she said. "Some of those symptoms of anxiety or depression or traumatic stress symptoms like flashbacks or anger and irritability might be tied to the traumatic event."  

Gerardi said she hopes seeing her son's suffering will help people understand things need to change. 

"This is 100 percent preventable," she said, "100 percent preventable. There's a lot of trauma and things in life that are not. This is not one of those. This could have been prevented."

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