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Handcuffs in Hallways: Thousands of California children are being arrested on K-12 campuses. Why?

Handcuffs in Hallways: Thousands of California children are being arrested on K-12 campuses. Why?
Handcuffs in Hallways: Thousands of California children are being arrested on K-12 campuses. Why? 04:41

SACRAMENTO - Videos of Children being handcuffed at school often make headlines and go viral. While you may assume those viral incidents are rare exceptions, a CBS News investigation finds that arrests at elementary schools are more common than you may think.


Nationwide, thousands of children are arrested each year at K through 8th-grade schools and data reveals those students are disproportionately black or have disabilities.

Students, like this boy, who we'll call CB. 

Officer body camera video captures one of the four times CB was handcuffed at his Southern California school, according to court records

This time, he was handcuffed for refusing to get up and walk to the principal's office so he could be questioned about accusations that he threw rocks at school resource officers the previous day. 

"He is being punished. For the very diagnosis that he has of oppositional defiant disorder," said Attorney Dan Stromer.

Stromer is a civil rights attorney, representing CB along with the Disability Rights Education Defense Fund.   

He explains that the 11-year-old boy has been diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder, which he says requires a specialized response to non-compliant behavior.

However, as the body camera video reveals, less than 90 seconds after officers arrive, they pull CB from his desk, pin the child down and handcuff the boy who continues to struggle. 

"The school knows that he suffers from a diagnosable condition, which is exacerbated by their approach," said Stromer.

We asked the district if they have a specialized policy or trained staff to respond to students with disabilities like CB's.

Representatives from the school district said they are unable to comment on litigation or medical issues, but that, "overall, we work with the sheriff's department to use de-escalation tactics with all students, regardless of known or unknown conditions."

While CB's case may be extreme, he is certainly not alone. 

A CBS News analysis of "US Department of Education Data" reveals that more than 11,000 children were arrested on elementary and middle school campuses nationwide in just one year. Law enforcement was called more than 79,000 times. 


Only about one out of every seven of those so-called law enforcement "referrals" ended with an arrest. But data reveals that K-8 students with disabilities were more than three times as likely to be arrested than their non-disabled counterparts.

Here in California, police were called more than 10,000 times in a single year. That's about in line with the national average. But California has a much lower student arrest rate. 

Only about one out of every 18 referrals on California elementary and middle school campuses ends in arrest.

"Does that tell you that police are being called for incidents that maybe don't warrant a police officer?" we asked former Sacramento County Sheriff John McGinness. 

"I wouldn't necessarily draw that conclusion," he replied. 

McGinness says, whether it's local law enforcement or a sworn school resource officer, they're trained to de-escalate situations with students and may try to avoid arresting a child when possible. 

"Law enforcement officers have the latitude to book somebody, to cite them and release them, or to counsel and release," he said. 

McGinness, a former school resource officer himself, often serves as an expert witness in cases of police misconduct. He believes that, in some cases, law enforcement is being misused on school campuses.    

"There is a time to call in law enforcement, but school rules should be enforced by school authorities," he said. 

State law requires districts to refer students to law enforcement for a variety of offenses that violate the criminal code.


However, our review of local on-campus law enforcement referrals, on 10 local campuses that reported at least one arrest, reveals that police were called for a combination of crimes and behavioral issues. 

For instance, Mae Hensley Jr. High in Ceres reported at least three arrests and 26 referrals for reasons ranging from possession of marijuana or a knife to circulating inappropriate photos, disrupting school activities, and "tardy mediation".

That district does have dedicated school resource officers on campus. 

Meanwhile, the Modesto City Elementary District, which does not have sworn officers, reported two schools with a combined 31 police referrals and two arrests: one for threatening mass violence against the school and the other for pulling a fire alarm.

In all, we found at least 15 arrests and 104 referrals on just 10 local campuses in one year and experts believe there are far more arrests nationwide than are actually being re-reported.

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