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Handcuffing Kids As Scare Tactic is Criticized in Missouri

December 18, 2004
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Handcuffing Kids As Scare Tactic is Criticized in Missouri

By Kavita Kumar, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch

It's not unheard of for police officers to place handcuffs on young children, but the handcuffing should never be used as scare tactics, police experts say.

Too often, police officers are asked to frighten kids, said Curtis Lavarello, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers.

"One of the things that school administrators need to keep in mind is that a police officer's presence on a campus is not to be used as a bogeyman," he said. "We're not there to put a scare in kids. Our role is to enforce laws."

This issue came up last week when a St. Louis mother said that police had handcuffed her 5-year-old son at Thurgood Marshall Academy. The principal, Sam Morgan, said he had enlisted help from the police in the hopes of improving the student's unruly behavior. He said he wanted to "scare him straight."

The St. Louis charter school's board has put Morgan on administrative leave while the incident is being investigated.

St. Louis police say the officer in question is on military duty and won't be back before the beginning of next year.

"When he gets back, he will be questioned," said police spokesman Richard Wilkes.

Wilkes said the department's handcuffing policy is pretty simple: "We handcuff people when we're arresting people."

In the case at Thurgood Marshall, Lavarello said, it doesn't appear that handcuffs were being used appropriately.

"The use of handcuffs is not an instructional thing," he said. "It's not to teach students lessons. It has a distinct purpose: to restrict a person's movement so they can't flee and can't injure themselves or others."

Police and the school may have been acting in good faith to teach the student a lesson, but that's not the role of the police, Lavarello said. Not only can it be traumatic to the student, but it also can send the wrong message to other students who might observe the handcuffing and grow distrustful of police as a result, he added.

"Our job as police officers is not to create fear," Lavarello said.

Riverview Gardens school resource officer Richard Hudson works in five of the school district's elementary schools. He said he has used handcuffs on young children in two cases - involving an 8-year-old and a 10-year-old - but they were used only as a last resort.

When students physically fight him in the course of his job, Hudson says, he usually puts some pressure on their wrists and tells them to stop. If they are still in a rage, he said he might do a small wrist lock and inflict a bit of pain to get them to focus on his words.

In the two cases where he used handcuffs, the students were tearing up the classroom - shoving over desks and making teachers afraid, he said. Hudson said he couldn't get them to calm down, so he used the handcuffs only briefly to settle them down. Once they were under control, he took them off, he said.

"Only if they are under arrest for a heinous crime such as stabbing someone would I put the handcuffs on and leave them on," Hudson said.

And he would never use them to instill fear, he said. People who do that "don't know what they are doing."

Hudson sees his role as protecting students, not frightening them, he said.

While he understands that the principal and officer involved in the 5-year-old handcuffing were in their own way trying to help the child, he disagrees with what they did.

"I sympathize with the intent, not with the technique," he said.

But what are schools to do if they have students with significant behavior issues?

Dr. John Constantino, an associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Washington University, said scaring students straight is not a good solution.

"First of all, there is no evidence that 'scared straight' for young children or anything like it has ever been systematically effective, even for older children," he said.

A big problem is that there are many students out there who have unmet mental health needs or hard-to-handle behavioral issues, he said. Sometimes, schools try to address the issue, but they are often ill-equipped or at a loss as to what to do.

"If a child's behavior is beyond their ability to manage it, they need to go to a professional for help," he said.

Still, despite what the experts say, some people say there's nothing like the power of fear to curb bad behavior.

Jurnell Davis, who is now 14, said that one day last spring he brought a pocketknife to Thurgood Marshall, where he is now in eighth grade. He was planning to give it to a friend who was being picked on by other students, he said. Word got out about the knife and school officials confiscated it from his backpack. Morgan, the principal, called his mother and the police.

With his mother watching, the police handcuffed Jurnell and sat him in the back of the squad car.

"I was numb," he said. "I was like, 'Jurnell, what have you done to yourself?' I had a heavy beating in my chest."

The officers told him that he could go to juvenile detention for six to eight months. He said he saw his life going down the toilet - and everything that he and Morgan had worked toward, like going to college, slipping away.

His mother, Shelly, didn't object as the officers took her son away.

"Mr. Morgan let me know that they were just going to let them talk to him and help him to realize the extent to what he did and how much trouble he could have gotten into had he continued with whatever he was going to do with the knife," she said. "I was in complete favor of it because I don't want my son going to waste."

The officers took off Jurnell's handcuffs and let him go. But he wasn't out of trouble - the school did suspend him.

Jurnell said he's been on the right track ever since, though he admits he has been in two fights this year. But with Morgan's help, he's trying to behave and not let the other students get to him, he said.

And he said he hopes that the board will see that Morgan has the best interests of his students at heart. He is circulating a petition around school to bring the principal back.

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