WHEN A KENTUCKY SHERIFF'S DEPUTY was caught on camera handcuffing an 8-year-old boy with disabilities, it made national headlines. But the problem runs deeper than one overzealous officer, say ACLU attorneys who sued the deputy and the Kenton County sheriff’s office in federal court under the Fourth and 14th Amendments and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

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Schools are not set up to work well with children with disabilities, ACLU disability counsel Susan Mizner says, especially hidden disabilities such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), so those kids are often targeted for increased discipline. African-American students with disabilities are twice as likely to be handcuffed or otherwise “mechanically” restrained as their peers, according to the Department of Education.

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About 19,000 law enforcement officers work in schools nationwide. Those “school resource officers” frequently lack the training or temperament to interact with children, especially those with disabilities, and often arrest kids for minor, noncriminal activity. “If you are used to working with a hammer, it’s hard not to view kids as nails,” Mizner says.

Such interactions with law enforcement make things worse for the children, the teachers, and the school. Aaron Kupchik, professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Delaware, has found that schoolchildren who receive heightened punishment are more likely to drop out, less likely to be employed, and are at greater risk for incarceration. So instead of making schools safer, officers exacerbate behavior problems and greatly increase the number of children in the school-to-prison pipeline.

 

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