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Special Needs Students Are More Likely To Be Arrested In School

Over the last few months I have been researching juvenile justice issues with a particular focus on how to keep kids out of jail. While writing about my findings I have explored the disturbing national phenomenon of extremely young kids being arrested. This research has also uncovered the troubling connection between police officers (SROs) stationed in schools and elevated arrests and incarcerations of juveniles from these schools. Perhaps most horrifying has been the discovery that the fastest growing segment of police brutality and abuse is among School Resource Officers.

Each of these shocking discoveries has been well-documented by research by well-respected national child advocacy groups and other researchers and I have included links to their research in each piece. I find myself very carefully phrasing this lead-in because I have discovered an inescapable thread within these already shameful stories of persecution and abuse.

The following quote from a recent article puts this issue in the spotlight:

U.S. public schools have become houses of horror for many special needs students. According to the Virginia Commission on Youth, special needs students account for only 12 percent of all public school students in the United States, but they “represent 75 percent of those physically restrained and 58 percent of those secluded“. At some schools, physical restraints used on special needs children include handcuffs, duct tape and bungee cords. And often the scream rooms that these children are “isolated” in are so horrifying that it scars many of them for life. One of the key measures for any society is how it treats those that are most vulnerable. And the way that we are treating our special needs children is sorely lacking.

This statement seemed so appalling as to be literally unbelievable so I did more research. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights:

  • Students with disabilities represent 12% of overall student population
  • Students with disabilities represent more than 25% of referrals to law enforcement
  • Students with disabilities represent 58% of “…those placed in seclusion or involuntary confinement…”
  • Students with disabilities represent 75% of those physically restrained at school
    • Of those physically restrained at school 36% are restrained “…through the use of a mechanical device…”

It would be comforting to believe that this information is incorrect or outdated or simply not true. The above listed statistics come from the U.S. Department of Education’s Data Snapshot: School Discipline dated March 2014.

In the state of Wyoming (which had 15,098 special education students in 2011) Governor Mead’s 2013 School Safety and Security Task Force just recommended the expansion of the use of SROs in schools. One of the biggest criticisms of the School Resource Officer trend is that these police officers are not properly trained to deal with the needs of school children in general. Special needs students are even more likely to be vulnerable to targeting based on fundamental misunderstandings.

Some students who go to schools with SROs may not understand that an SRO is actually a member of sworn law enforcement. As a result, a student may unknowingly make statements that he or she might not, were it a typical police officer asking them questions; additionally, a student may underestimate the need to have a parent or attorney present.”

Children with disabilities already have difficulties performing well in traditional classroom settings. While the programs developed though the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) provide that affected students receive appropriate public school education, this 1975 federal law made no provisions for ensuring that these children were protected from the physical and legal ramifications of being inappropriately targeted by in-school law enforcement.

Too often teachers with special needs students call on SROs to remove disruptive children from their classrooms. I want to make one point clear here: this problem is not entirely one of inappropriate law enforcement practices. The job of a law enforcement officer is to control a situation and de-escalate confrontations so that business as usual in the community or school can go on with the minimal disruption possible. The primary tools of modern law enforcement are arrest, restraint and incarceration.

At the heart of this issue is the fact that schools are supposed to be oases of safety and learning where all students are encouraged to develop their knowledge and skills in a nurturing and protective environment. When parents send their children off each morning it is with the expectation that their progeny will return at the end of the day having learned a little something among a group of their peers.

Parents of special needs students have an even stronger need to trust that educators and teaching staff will participate in the positive shaping and educating of their children with challenges. It seems particularly deceptive to require parents of special needs children to actively participate in the federally mandated special education process and then subject their children to environments that are much more likely to lead to unlawful restraint and arrest masquerading as school discipline.

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Monday, 23 October 2017
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