ALBUQUERQUE — When an Albuquerque Public Schools police officer used handcuffs to restrain a 7-year-old boy with autism, Superintendent Winston Brooks condemned her actions and Bernalillo County Sheriff Dan Houston revoked her law enforcement commission.
Brooks made it clear to APS staff that "absolutely under no circumstances" would it be OK to handcuff an elementary school student.
While no one has come forward to defend the practice, educators say calming an out-of-control child, even a small one, isn't simple. That's true for students in regular classrooms and for students with special needs. And what works for one child may trigger even worse behavior in another child.
Many parents just don’t know how to deal with an unruly or uncooperative child — all too often, that responsibility falls to police
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Meanwhile, an entire class — or more — can be held hostage by a child's outburst. Even the best solutions can disrupt education for other students by tying up staff members or requiring students to be moved out of a class where a child is having an outburst.
"There's just no easy answer," said Leila Pochop, a special education teacher at Jimmy Carter Middle School.
The incident at Mary Ann Binford Elementary earlier this month lasted more than two hours, beginning when the boy began acting out in class, calling other students names and disobeying.
But the situation escalated steadily, to the point that the student ran from his classroom, kicked and punched a social worker, flipped over chairs and spit on the floor. When the officer arrived two hours into the incident, she tried to calm the boy, but he began shooting rubber bands at her and kicking her, according to her report. After warning him to stop, she put him in handcuffs.
Pochop said she believes violent outbursts from students have increased in frequency and intensity. The poor economy, she suggests, may be putting strains on families that students with special needs carry with them to school.
Pochop also said shrinking public education budgets have led to smaller staffs and larger classrooms, which can trigger outbursts or make them harder to control.
Pochop said outbursts often start with small agitations.
"They may be tapping on a wall or their desk, may refuse to do an assignment or follow directions," she said. "They may start talking back or even yelling, and it can escalate from there to actually throwing things across the classroom, small things like pencils or a book to throwing a desk."
No 'one' solution Denise Koscielniak, the special education director at the Public Education Department, said her department emphasizes two main points: Prevention is key, and every student is different. Prevention means intervening when students first show signs of getting upset.
"I'm the teacher and I notice you're getting agitated, maybe I just come and stand close to you, depending on the child," Koscielniak said. "Sometimes, a kid will just need a touch on the shoulder to help them regroup. ... In my classes, sometimes students and I would have a warning system just between the two of us."
The "warning system" may involve a code word that the student has been trained to recognize. When the student hears the code word, he can then try to use a calming technique he's been taught — perhaps a deep breathing exercise or physically walking away to a quiet corner.
APS policies also emphasize prevention, and both state and district policies say restraint should be used as a last resort — when students are in danger of hurting themselves or others.
Only people certified in de-escalation techniques can physically restrain a student, under state policy. When a child does need to be restrained, proper techniques may involve as many as two adults immobilizing the child's arms, legs and head. Staff members are taught never to sit on a child or to hold him or her face down on the ground.
Liz Thomson, who is past president of the New Mexico Autism Society and whose son has autism, said the training is a good start, but parents would like to see training specific to autism. While students with autism are not the only ones who act out, she said they have particular needs that can be counterintuitive.
"Many of the things teachers do that they think are good will exacerbate the situation," Thomson said. "Holding (students) still or touching them can escalate rather than calm them down."
While children with autism may be in classes with other special education students, they are often integrated into regular classrooms, depending on how well they function. Thomson said teachers without specific knowledge of autism might try to reason with an autistic child, when verbal stimulation will actually just amp the child up further.
She said often — but not always — the best solution is to back away and reduce stimuli until a student calms down. "It has to be looked at through the autism lens," Thomson said. "What might be comforting to a neurotypical child might be painful to a child with autism."
Thomson said it also helps to bring in someone the student is comfortable with. Whichever teacher, counselor or educational assistant knows the student best should be brought in to calm him down.
"I know it sounds Pollyanna to say, 'Do all this when a kid is melting down,' but it doesn't take a second to buzz the office and say, 'Please send this person to Room 103,' " she said.
Many of the schools have codes they use to alert the staff when a child with a known behavior problem acts up, as well as prepared response plans. But teachers say it is impossible to have a specific plan in place for every child in every situation.
How it should work In APS, each school has a team or teams assigned to respond to violent student outbursts. Every team member is certified in de-escalation strategies, with an initial certification and a required annual refresher course. Lisa Heimer, the instructional manager for the APS Special Education Department, said the training is offered throughout the school year and the summer so teams can add people when necessary and can stay current on certification.
Heimer said although the training emphasizes prevention, trainees also learn safe restraint techniques and practice them on one another.
"You actually work with team members to practice, and the trainers make sure you're doing it correctly," she said.
Teams can include classroom teachers, counselors, social workers and school administrators. When team members are called away from their normal duties to deal with a student having an outburst, their classes must then be covered. That can involve combining the class with another one or bringing in an educational assistant until the regular teacher can return.
Students may also have to leave their classrooms if a student is throwing things, overturning furniture or posing other risks to classmates. Pochop said it may sound disruptive to clear a classroom, but it is often safer than trying to move the student who is acting out.
"It's much safer to remove the calm students," Pochop said. "They go to a certain room, have a buddy teacher. You try to remove the audience and sometimes that works."
Pochop said she also sees more teachers requesting deescalation training.
"More and more, teachers are reaching out for professional development on behavior techniques, classroom management, how do you prevent inappropriate behavior, how do you enhance positive behavior. More and more, teachers are saying, this is what we need to help support our students," Pochop said.
Educators agree handcuffs should not be used on elementary children, even if they are out of control, but they say there are no simple solutions.