Claudia Center: Handcuffing Students in the Schools

Aug 10, 2015 by


An Interview with Claudia Center: Handcuffing Students in the Schools

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Claudia, first of all, can you tell us a bit about yourself, and your education and background and experience?

I am a disability rights lawyer. I went to Berkeley Law School beginning in 1988. I was lucky enough to take a class in disability rights law with Arlene Mayerson of Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF). As part of our class activities, I met Ed Roberts, one of the pioneers of the independent living movement.

I am also a person with a very common psychiatric disability – major depression. My disability is mostly in remission these days, but it sometimes flares up. It was very active in college and law school.

I have also been a foster parent for two children with disabilities, including one with learning disabilities requiring special education. (They are adults now and no longer live with me.)

I worked as a disability rights lawyer for the Legal Aid Society – Employment Law Center for 19 years, focusing on disability rights in employment and education. I have been with the ACLU’s Disability Rights Program for about a year and a half.

2) I would like to start with some generalizations, and then get to specifics- and if you feel you cannot or should not respond to any of these questions, that is certainly understandable. A general question first of all—when did the schools start calling police and is this practice, in your professional opinion and judgment, warranted?

I am not an expert in the history of School Resource Officers. The internet says that the first documented use of a School Resource Officer was in 1953 in Flint, Michigan, and that now there are at least 20,000 full-time SROs across the country.

Generally, it is not appropriate to call police or to use physical force (whether by police or by school personnel) as a response to disability-related conduct, unless there is a direct threat of physical harm to the student or to others and there is absolutely no alternative to maintain safety.

3) It seems to me, as a citizen, if the police have to be called to deal with a discipline problem—either the teacher is not competent or not well trained–or the child is so violent, aggressive, assaultive or destructive that the safety of the other children ( and perhaps the teacher) is at risk- your reaction?

We know what works for students like our clients who have behavioral disabilities – trauma-informed care, de-escalation, crisis intervention, positive supports for self-regulation and behavior, time, patience, communication, and similar techniques. These approaches are safer and more effective for everyone, including students and staff.

We know what makes things worse and more dangerous for everyone – escalation, demands for compliance, and physical force such as handcuffs.

In 2009, the GAO published a report documenting hundreds of alleged incidents of restraint and seclusion of schoolchildren, including 20 causing death. Virtually all of the incidents involved children with disabilities.

After the GAO report, the U.S. Department of Education sent a letter to all states requesting that they review and revise their policies on the use of restraint and seclusion on students. Many states including Kentucky have adopted the right standards on paper, but the standards are not implemented in practice.

Based on the latest data (2011-12 school year), more than 50,000 students with disabilities are physically restrained each year, and nearly 4,000 are handcuffed. These interventions using physical force are emotionally traumatic for the students, and can cause physical injury or even death. These experiences make it impossible for the students to learn and to benefit from their education.

4) It seems that the students in question had special needs. Was there a plan in place – a discipline plan or a Section 504 plan or a FBA/BIP (Functional Behavior Analysis/Behavior Intervention Plan) plan in place to address their discipline issues?

The boy does not yet have a plan in place to address disability-related behaviors. This is one aspect of a pending IDEA due process complaint that is being handled by the Children’s Law Center. The girl has an IEP in place that includes strategies for disability-related behaviors.

5) Now, I guess the finger pointing will start—-in your mind, was the teacher culpable, the school safety guard, or the Kenton County Sheriff’s Office at fault? In other words, did the school safety guard overstep his or her authority or boundaries?

Our complaint alleges that the School Resource Officer used excessive force in violation of the U.S. Constitution, and that the SRO (and by extension his supervisor and employer) failed to use appropriate strategies under the ADA for interacting with young schoolchildren with disabilities. So, yes, from our viewpoint, the School Resource Officer violated the law as we state in the complaint.

6) I guess we have to turn to the legalities, rather than the special education issues- Did the school act unreasonably? Did the Kenton County Sheriff’s Office do something inappropriate or illegal?

Our complaint alleges that the Kenton County Sheriff’s Office does not have the proper training, procedures, policies, and supervision for safe and effective interactions between SROs and young schoolchildren with disabilities. So, yes, from our viewpoint, the Sheriff’s Office violated the law as we state in the complaint.

7) Getting back to the schools—some behavior problems, discipline problems, and kids with psychiatric diagnoses are often in regular education, when they probably should be getting more one to one supervision, perhaps medication, perhaps counseling, perhaps behavior modification. At what point do you as an attorney- say that the school was doing things inappropriately, or perhaps “on the cheap” would be a better phrase?

Doing the right thing for schoolchildren with behavioral disabilities is safer for everyone, and in the long run it saves money. The strategies that work include trauma-informed approaches, de-escalation, crisis intervention, positive supports for self-regulation and behavior, time, patience, communication, and similar techniques. There are schools (for example, the Grafton School) that have eliminated restraint and seclusion by embracing alternatives. See

8) If these kids are so unmanageable, should they not be in some residential treatment facility?

Physical restraint and seclusion are more likely to occur in segregated settings, such as special day classes, nonpublic special education schools (aka NPSs), and residential treatment. Placement in a segregated setting or in residential treatment should be a last resort. These placements separate children from their family and community supports, and in many such programs, there is an overreliance on restraint and seclusion.

For future reading:

The Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities 2009, 22, 216–220

The Effects of an Action Plan, Staff Training, Management Support and Monitoring on Restraint Use and Costs of Work-Related Injuries by

Kim Sanders

Grafton Inc., Winchester, VA, USA

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