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School Brutality: Beating Up On Kids

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When I read the following note from the Southern Poverty Law Center in my email box, I had to check to see what year this was. Yes, it’s 2010, not 1800s London, not the time of Charles Dickens and his poorhouses, orphanages, and schools modeled on torture chambers. I do not exaggerate. Read on.

It’s not right for a 6-year-old boy to be handcuffed and shackled to a chair by an armed security officer because he “acted up” in school. But that’s exactly what happened at the Sarah T. Reed Elementary School in New Orleans. In keeping with our work to reform the abusive juvenile justice system in the Deep South, we’ve filed a lawsuit against the school district to stop the brutal and unconstitutional policy of chaining students who break minor school rules.

Our client, J.W., is a typical first-grader. He’s just four feet tall and weighs 60 pounds. He enjoys playing basketball, being read to by his parents, coloring and playing outside with friends. But his school treated him like an animal. Within one week, he was twice forcibly arrested, handcuffed and shackled to a chair for talking back to a teacher and later arguing with a classmate over a seat….Shockingly, this level of punishment is official school policy….

Unfortunately, J.W.’s story is hardly unique. All across the nation, schools have adopted draconian “zero-tolerance” policies that treat children like criminals and turn schools into prison-like environments. The primary function of school is to help educate our children so that they can become productive, well-informed adults. These policies do just the opposite — they seize on any opportunity to criminalize behavior and eject children from schools, driving up dropout rates.

Since being chained and shackled, J.W. has become withdrawn and afraid to go to school. His counselor reports that he has been “deeply affected and traumatized.” We’re determined to hold the school and school district accountable for what they’ve done and to stop their barbaric treatment of children so that no one else suffers like J.W.


There is no Federal law against the use of seclusion and restraints in  the schools. Here’s what Senator Dianne Feinstein has to say about it:

A May 2009 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that there have been hundreds of cases of alleged abuse or death related to the use of these methods in the classroom in the last two decades. State laws and regulations vary widely on this issue, and in California, it is required that selected staff receive training before using restraints and that a parent receive notice after a restraint has been used.

How enlightened of California! Teachers are trained in restraint techniques, and parents are notified afterwards!  Not to fret: Congress is on the case:

On December 9, 2009, Senator Christopher Dodd (D-CT) introduced the “Preventing Harmful Restraint and Seclusion in Schools Act” (S. 2860), which would prohibit school personnel from using physical restraint or seclusion. It would also require schools to develop procedures to quickly notify parents and legal guardians if a child has been subject to restraint or seclusion at school…

I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m confused. The bill would ‘prohibit school personnel from using physical restraint or seclusion’ and it would ensure that school personnel  ‘quickly notify parents and legal guardians if a child has been subject to restraint or seclusion.WTF?


I don’t have miuch to offer in the way of a solution to this stuff. Nor do I see any silver lining in this dark cloud. Our country seems to be moving backwards in many areas, and schools are one more place where the powerful get to do whatever they want to the powerless.

A positive action would be to support organizations like the SPLC. Another is to keep up with what’s going on out there and tell other people about it – that’s why I’m here. What about you?

PS: In Bangla Desh they just banned corporal punishment after a kid committed suicide because of a school beating.

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3 responses »

  1. I once read portions of one school district’s policy on punishment and “student control” – it had discussion of “passive restraint standards” (tying a student’s hands and/or feet loosely), and maximum permissible pounds per square inch of “active restraint” (physically holding a student down). It did provide prohibitions against striking a student, and examples of circumstances where such restraint may be used. This was in about 2002, if I remember correctly. I have no idea if such a set of guidelines is commonplace in public education or not, but to me, it read like a waterboarding manual (btw, I don’t recall if waterboarding a junior high student was specifically prohibited or not).

    And would you need a calibrated strain gauge to measure the force used to hold little Johnny to the ground?

  2. I do not support handcuffing little kids but the difficulty of that decision should be examined. I was (for one year only) a kindergarten teacher. It was the hardest job I ever had. They gave me total responsibility for 25 5-year olds who all spoke different languages. By the end of the year, each child could read and write and no one was put in handcuffs, but there were moments when I did not know how to keep a student from hurting another student. It was significant progress when, by the end of the year, a boy who was very violent in reaction to any competitive situation merely went to the front of the line to punch the line leader of the week in the stomach and then went to the back of the line. This kid is very smart but remained a bully for many years. When I approached his father with the issue, the dad hit him on the back of the head and I knew the whole family needed support. I did that (cajoled, begged, bothered, annoyed the guidance counselor until he took it seriously) but meanwhile I had also a kid who was threatening suicide with a pencil aimed at his juglar, and who would strangle one of the girls in the class if she looked at or talked to any other boys and lots of kids who are used to being entertained for hours each evening by xbox games or r rated movies and who therefore considered school dull. These were 5 year olds who had seen more r rated movies than me! So let’s say that a kid is beating up another kid and I call school security (which is what I was supposed to do) then school security has to handcuff whomever they remove from a class as a function of their policies. I never called security. I have been bitten, hit in the head and have had a door slammed repeatedly in my back. If I was injured, I would not get the union’s backing for days off and it would be unlikely that I would get the backing of Department of Education because I am not supposed to step between two fighting kids. I routinely do this anyway to keep kids safe but I can totally understand and support teachers who choose to do it the official way and call school safety (police officers assigned to that job). How do we fix that problem? Stop stuffing 25 5-year olds into a class with one teacher. People are more like chickens than we probably want to acknowledge. When we have resources we need but cannot get to because of overcrowding, we peck.

  3. It’s awful. But is it really because of 25 kids in a class? I can’t remember, it was so long ago, how many kids were in my first grade class, but it could’ve been that many. I’m talking about 1951. And nothing like that went on. The reasons are more likely many and complex. But I admire and appreciate your not calling security with their brutal tactics on these kids.

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