the school to prison express


{Image is a photo of  young child in handcuffs. Read the story it came from here.}

The headline of the article read, “Judge Finds Lynchburg Middle Schooler with Autism Guilty on Criminal Charges.” In the body of the article was the following ..

Doss told PRI that Kayleb was instructed that day to wait – while other kids left the classroom, but he disobeyed. She says the principal then sent the School Resource Officer to get Kayleb.

In the PRI article, Kayleb says the officer grabbed him and tried to take him to the office – and when Kayleb tried to push away, the officer “slammed me down and then handcuffed me.” That led to another disorderly conduct charge – and a charge for Felony assault on a police officer.

In April, a Lynchburg judge found Kayleb guilty of one disorderly conduct charge and of felony assault on a police officer.

And Kayleb is not alone.

According to the Center for Public Integrity… in a year, Virginia schools refer students to law enforcement agencies at a rate nearly three times the national rate. That’s higher than any other state in the country.

The data shows many of those students are special needs, Latino, and Black. LPD was recognized last month at Commonwealth Autism’s annual state conference in Richmond.

Our community reacted with horror. And outrage. How on earth could an eleven year-old boy end up with a felony for disobeying a teacher in school? Why would the school resource officer be called when an autistic child simply didn’t follow instructions (not taking into account the nearly infinite reasons that he didn’t or couldn’t)? How does an eleven year-old kid end up in the legal system because he followed his class out of the classroom?

In its strong condemnation of the incident, the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network wrote the following.

Both in Virginia and nationally, there is evidence of what many advocates call a school-to-prison pipeline: a systemic misapplication of school disciplinary procedures which disproportionately targets students of color, students with disabilities, and students of color with disabilities, resulting in harsher discipline and students being funneled into the juvenile justice and prison systems at younger and younger ages.

Yesterday, I began my morning by logging onto CNN. My stomach dropped as I read this ..

5-year-old handcuffed, placed in police car at school

The story itself is even worse than the headline. When five year-old Connor Ruiz became agitated and lost control in his special needs classroom at Philadelphia Primary School, state police were summoned.

Captain Darrin Pitkin of the New York State Police explains in the video that because the teachers reported that he was trying to stab himself with a pencil, “the best way to prevent this child from injuring himself or causing any type of injury or threat to other students or staff was physically restraining him in handcuffs and leg shackles” and, apparently putting him into the back of the cruiser to transport him, still in the restraints, to a nearby hospital.

A five year-old kid with emotional challenges was handcuffed, placed in leg shackles, and put into the back of a police car.

In 2011 , a pair of bills were introduced into the House and Senate called the Keeping All Students Safe Act, aimed at creating and enforcing a safe environment for both students and teachers and prohibiting the use of dangerous seclusion and restraint practices. Upon the announcement of the proposed legislation, its primary sponsor in the Senate, Tom Harkin said,

My goal is to bring about change—to stop the use of seclusion and to severely limit the use of restraints in schools, and to provide teachers and school leaders with the resources to replace these antiquated techniques with learning environments that engage students so incidences of challenging behaviors are decreased and learning in schools is optimized. The Keeping All Students Safe Act, which I am introducing today, will prohibit the use of seclusion and almost all uses of restraint, while ensuring that school personnel have the knowledge and resources available to respond, in a positive, supportive, and safe manner when challenging behaviors do occur.


In 2012, the Department of Education issued a Resource Document in which it lays out 15 core principles for states to consider when revising their policies on restraint and seclusion. In the body of the document it says,

The foundation of any discussion about the use of restraint and seclusion is that every effort should be made to structure environments and provide supports so that restraint and seclusion are unnecessary. As many reports have documented, the use of restraint and seclusion can, in some cases, have very serious consequences, including, most tragically, death. There is no evidence that using restraint or seclusion is effective in reducing the occurrence of the problem behaviors that frequently precipitate the use of such techniques.

You can read all of the 15 core principles here. Most of them talk about when and how restraint and seclusion can be used. Some talk about the importance of training and the need for positive behavioral intervention long before any other measures are considered. One mentions that mechanical restraint (ie handcuffs and leg shackles) is strictly verboten. One (the fifth) reads, “Any behavioral intervention must be consistent with the child’s rights to be treated with dignity and to be free from abuse.”

Throughout the 15 principles, there are mentions of teachers, children, parents, and one to a “licensed physician or other qualified health professional.” Nowhere is there any reference to the role of the police. Their absence is not an error nor an inadvertent omission, it is a glaring statement of the fact that they should not be a factor to consider in an academic setting.

In a letter accompanying the resource document in which these principles are presented, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wrote,

Schools must do everything possible to ensure all children can learn, develop, and participate in instructional programs that promote high levels of academic achievement. To accomplish this, schools must make every effort to structure safe environments and provide a behavioral framework, such as the use of positive behavior interventions and supports, that applies to all children, all staff, and all places in the school so that restraint and seclusion techniques are unnecessary.

Chelsea Ruiz said that her son’s school is the only place that he has these types of issues. Perhaps it’s time for the school, like so many others, to take a long, hard look at the environment it’s created and to train its staff to respond appropriately to a five year-old in distress. Because I’m hard-pressed to understand how handcuffs, leg shackles, and a ride in the back of a police cruiser are consistent with the child’s rights to be treated with dignity and to be free from abuse.

We have to create environments that work for our kids. Within those environments, we have to teach them how to manage their challenges without hurting themselves or others. And as they struggle through that learning process, in which, if we’re doing it right, we ALL take part, we MUST stop treating them like criminals.

* The seclusion and restraint bill is apparently secluded in committee and restrained by a lack of interest in Congress. 


15 thoughts on “the school to prison express

  1. This is horrifying and absolutely must be stopped. We must keep our children safe. Every child has to be kept safe, no exceptions!

    Love you,

  2. I was awakened this morning at 4am by the list of never ending things I must do, get checked off the list etc I read this. I am now so angry I don’t think I will be able to go to sleep again. Thank you to the person above who gave me an action step. I will be taking that step today. This is absolutely unacceptable on every level. Thank as always Jess for educating and enlightening us!

  3. Pingback: » the school to prison express

  4. Jess, I was sickened to read about the 8 year old being convicted- of a felony no less! This saddens me to no end as an educator as well as a parent of a neuro-diverse child. The judge is an elected official so the good news is, if people organize and keep this at the forefront, they can get him elected out of office. It is going to take real advocacy and activism though. May we vehemently oppose the pipeline to prison and put a collective stop to such practices.
    In the instance of the 8 year old and 5 year old, nowhere have I heard mention of their parents being called to help de-escalate the situation and to provide assistance with their extensive knowledge of successfully working with their child. If the child is only having behavioral difficulty in that school situation I’d say that it was high-time to look at the situation very closely to determine the behavioral triggers etc. because behavior IS communication.
    In addition to all of the other difficulties and challenges that these two young boys already have, now you can most likely add Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to their already overflowing plate! In addition, they are probably going to have an aversion to law enforcement, putting these at-risk kids at even higher potential to be victimized.
    Enough is enough! Let us stand together in solidarity and let our collective legislators and elected officials know that the buck stops here! We will be the voice for our neuro-diverse kids.

  5. I can’t even tell you how many times kids in my grade school stabbed ourselves with pencils.

    We got sent to the nurses’s office.

    I would also like to note that, in the wake of the Columbine shooting when “school resource officers” started to become common, we were told that they were for the safety and protection of students.

    I knew then that that was not true. As always, I got told I was being histrionic.

    And yet here we are….

  6. American laws are creating an underclass of criminals, shaped by early events and destined to struggle the rest of their lives. Juvenile facilities are brutal, often moreso than adult facilities. Even if we assume (hope) that this child isn’t shadowed with a criminal record for the rest of his life, the experiences that he has in the legal wringer – experiences basically telling him he is a bad person – will predispose him to future legal problems.

  7. Jess, there are some severe problems with the Keeping All Students Safe bill. As written, it would do nothing to prevent the problem you’re describing, and might even make it worse. Notably, it explicitly states it does not prohibit the use of handcuffs by school resource officers if a student presents a danger to him/herself or others. Because many districts will try to avoid the expense of *proper* training of staff, the result is that they might well be more likely to call in resource officers. It also says untrained people can restrain in an emergency — again, minimizing the motivation of districts to do it right. They might train a skeleton crew, but then regularly rely on resource officers and “emergency” restraints. While the bill says they must train an “sufficient” number, who decides what that is?

    An additional problem with KASS is that it takes a well-intentioned step that will have major unintended consequences. Stating that restraint cannot be written into a behavior plan means that individuals with a long history of severe aggression (I’m talking about certain older teens) are at greater risk of being hurt or even killed. I’m talking about people who have “tells” (e.g., once someone says “blue truck”, things have passed the point of no return, even though no aggression has yet occurred. At that point, it is possible for trained staff to engage in the restraint without anyone getting hurt. If you wait until the explosion actually comes, it is very difficult to do it safely, either for the individual or staff. This is not a minor concern. My son’s school was informed by their lawyer that it would not be advisable for them to keep him as a student if this bill passed, for this reason.

    I’m all for ending unnecessary restraints and the school to prison pipeline, but this bill needs work.

    • Thank you again for sharing this here. It’s so vital to have all the information so that we can fight to get the necessary language in the bills.

  8. Having an adult child – although his meltdowns have subsided for the most part, he still becomes anxious and confused. I worry about this type of situation everyday. Thank you for sharing this information.

  9. My 12 year old who is on the spectrum PDD-NOS has been having difficulty at school, which has also resulted in “behavior” reports by the school. In an effort to educate the “educators” (his team at school). Bravo to Michele Eddy-Malott says: behavior IS communication. I’ve tried very hard to stress this to his team this year. Because of this – I’ve read “Behavior Code” and “Lost at School”. These books opened my eyes and I feel every educator, every parent or relative of a child who feels hopeless as to “how to help” is a MUST READ. I’m looking to purchase the team used copies, but sadly I cannot make them READ THEM.

    For kids on the spectrum, yes academics are important, but I think it’s lost upon the school system, how to help these kids deal with a meltdown when you ask a child to accomplish a task that to them seems insurmountable.

    Jess, kudos to you for bringing this extremely import topic to the forefront for all your fans.

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