By P.J. Huffstutter, Times Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times
MILWAUKEE, Wisc. — After a series of violent incidents on school campuses, public school officials here are considering the use of flexible plastic handcuffs on out-of-control students — from kindergarteners on up.
The Milwaukee School Board voted Thursday to begin training security staff members to use the plastic handcuffs, but the issue has provoked a heated debate between parents and administrators over how to provide a safe learning environment.
In October, a 15-year-old female student reportedly attacked the principal at Milwaukee's Ronald Wilson Reagan College Preparatory High School. The principal sustained a compression fracture in her back and a concussion when her head was slammed against a wall.
In November, a 17-year-old male student allegedly sexually assaulted a female teacher in front of a class at Madison High School. And earlier in the school year, an assistant principal was assaulted by a student.
The issue of violence on school grounds took on an urgent tone this week with the Virginia Tech shooting rampage that left 33 people dead.
"Columbine escalated the desire to have law enforcement and security in schools, and that desire is going to only be renewed now," said Dick Caster, executive director of the National Assn. of School Resource Officers, a nonprofit group that represents more than 9,000 school security guards.
"The key is making sure that staff is properly trained, especially given the debate that always seems to follow such efforts," he said.
Critics of such handcuffing often cite injury risks: A student might accidentally be choked while being restrained, and the cuffs used too tightly might interfere with blood circulation or cut the skin.
In Milwaukee, discussion on whether to use cuffs on K-12 campuses began months ago, said Supt. William G. Andrekopoulos.
Though district officials say they don't have statistics showing an overall upward trend in violent incidents, "we have situations that are getting out of control in our schools," Andrekopoulos said.
The debate reached a feverish peak Thursday when the Milwaukee School Board argued for nearly five hours over the handcuff resolution, which had been approved in committee.
"This is only to be used as a last-ditch tool," argued outgoing board President Joseph Dannecker, author of the resolution. "This is about making sure our students are safe."
Board member Charlene Hardin countered: "We don't need to prepare our students for prison…. If we do this, we might as well rename this the Milwaukee Public School Correctional Institution."
The board voted to begin letting school safety officers train with the Milwaukee Police Department on how to use the restraints.
But before school officials can use them on students, the district must hold a series of community meetings and gather public opinion about the program. That feedback will then be presented to the board later this year, and the board must give final approval before the handcuffs can be used.
Most of the dozens of parents and community leaders, some of whom chanted for the firing of Andrekopoulos, left the meeting opposed to the program and vowed to block it.
"My granddaughter is 15 and bipolar," said Mary Harrell, a retired county corrections officer. "What happens if someone says something when she's having an episode?
"Besides, restraining someone is not simple. Some of these kids are very big. You think one small teacher or safety officer is going to be able to slap cuffs on some eighth-grader who's nearly 6 feet tall?"
Such critics note that the school district has already taken steps to try to deal with this school year's problems:
The district hired special teams to deal with mental health issues on campuses and plans to install metal detectors in numerous schools. The police department has also assigned two pairs of officers to patrol the schools full time.
Yet given that there are nearly 94,000 students in a district of more than 200 schools, educators say security resources are spread too thin.
"I have worked in the Milwaukee public schools for 30 years, and now there are times I'm afraid," said Julia D'Amato, the principal who was attacked at Ronald Wilson Reagan.
D'Amato, who favors cuffs, believes they might have helped her situation.
"I love my school. I love the kids. But what if she had attacked other students, instead of me?" D'Amato said.
"Where do you draw the line between protecting one child, and protecting everyone else?"
Milwaukee may use cuffs on students