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Why are we criminalizing behavior of children with disabilities?

Luanne Haygood filmed her son being arrested by Okeechobee County deputies at his school on April 12, after she said said they were called in for testing. (Video: Luanne Haygood)

A video of a 10-year-old Florida boy with autism being arrested by a school resource officer, along with the story of how John Benjamin Haygood’s mother filmed the April 12 incident, have gone viral.

According to Luanne Haygood, the school called her and her son to come to campus for state standardizing testing, and while they were there, he was arrested for something that occurred last fall. As a resource officer reached for the boy’s wrists, he said, “I don’t want to be touched. I don’t like to be touched.”

Video shows 10-year-old autistic boy getting arrested at school

This is, unfortunately, not a singular event. In this post, Miranda Johnson, associate director of the Education Law and Policy Institute at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, writes about how the behavior of some students with special needs is becoming criminalized and explains why this is happening. Johnson, who is a Public Voices Fellow, supervises law students in Loyola’s Civitas ChildLaw Clinic and the Stand Up for Each Other Chicago Suspension Advocacy Project.

By Miranda Johnson

A Florida mother recently watched in horror as her 10-year-old autistic son was handcuffed and arrested at school. The child, John Benjamin Haygood, was taken into custody and spent a night in jail because, six months earlier, he kicked and scratched an aide assigned by the school to support him in his special education classroom. Yet John’s need for help managing his behaviors is precisely the reason he was entitled to extra support at school.

Unfortunately, this incident — while extreme — is not atypical. The most recent national data released by the Department of Education show that students with disabilities account for a quarter of all children arrested at school, even though they are only 12 percent of the school population.

As a lawyer who represents students who have been suspended or who face expulsion from school, I regularly work with young people who have become involved in the juvenile justice system. They are protected from being expelled when their behavior is related to their disability, but they can still be arrested, charged in juvenile justice proceedings or even criminally convicted when they are charged as an adult.

We have about 19,000 school resource officers (SROs) — police officers deployed by law enforcement agencies to work in schools — throughout the United States. Officers are stationed in 29 percent of our nation’s schools. The number of SROs has dramatically increased over the past two decades, and so have school-based arrests for minor offenses.

Because SROs are trained as law enforcement officers, they view children’s behavior through a police lens. For example, an officer may view hitting a school staff member as a battery justifying arrest, not taking into account the child’s age or special needs. The officer may not be aware of the student’s disability, any behavior intervention plan in place, and the processes available in schools to revise the student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) to address and support the student’s behavioral needs.

Indeed, only 12 states require SROs to have specialized training related to schools. 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. They therefore respond to routine school situations using the law enforcement tactics in which they were trained.

The consequences for students can be devastating. Last year in Texas, for example, an 8-year-old student with ADHD was handcuffed by an officer after he threw a tantrum at school. The officer’s body-cam video shows the boy, a second-grader, sobbing uncontrollably and whimpering that he did not want to go to jail. While school staff had been trained to appropriately and safely restrain students, they inexplicably failed to do so in this situation.

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These abuses by SROs may stem not only from a lack of training but also from the selection and oversight process. Being stationed in a school is generally not a sought-after position for an officer seeking upward mobility in the police force.

A recent report issued by the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law found that of police officers assigned to Chicago Public Schools (CPS), 67 percent have civilian complaints lodged against them, 31 percent have three or more complaints, and 11 percent have 10 or more complaints. In fact, two officers assigned to CPS schools have fatally shot teenagers off school grounds. While both were cleared of wrongdoing by the police review board, substantial payments were given to the victims’ families.

To be sure, administrators and parents have asked for SROs to be stationed in schools to promote school safety. This is an indisputably important goal. Research, however, is mixed on whether having officers in schools actually does make school safer.

At the same time, resources for staff in many of our public schools are limited. In Chicago, New York and Houston, for example, there are more school security guards and SROs in schools than there are counselors and social workers. Yet it is counselors and social workers who are needed to address the root causes of the problems causing students, particularly those with disabilities, to act out in schools in the first place.

If school districts are going to continue to station police officers in schools, they should heed federal guidance to adopt written policies that clearly limit officers’ roles to safety and security, not routine school discipline. Districts should also set minimum and ongoing training requirements to enable officers to interact with students with disabilities sensitively and appropriately. Districts and law enforcement agencies must design selection and oversight procedures to ensure that only officers highly qualified and dedicated to working with youths, particularly youths of color and students with disabilities, are working in school settings.

We must equip our schools to positively and proactively address the behavioral needs of students with disabilities, not arrest children in need of support.

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