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"Use of Force in a Washington State School District – Neither Reasonable nor Necessary"

September/October 2010 issue of Poverty & Race

In 2008, after receiving complaints of continuing reliance on physical restraints and handcuffs at public schools in Washington State, and particularly in the Kent School District (20 miles south of Seattle, in King County), the ACLU of Washington requested public records, including redacted incident reports detailing the use of physical, mechanical and/or chemical restraints (i.e., physical force, handcuffs and/or pepper spray) against students. We reviewed more than 400 separate reports, which as a whole reflect inadequate training and oversight for school staff authorized to use force against students and resulting evidence of the unnecessary use of force.

The Kent School District is not the only place in Washington where students are handcuffed, sprayed or forcefully “escorted” to the principal’s office. Unfortunately, we do not presently have the ability to review data from all districts around the state to see where the use of force is most common, because those data are not (yet) collected. They are generally not collected as part of discipline data, because schools are not allowed to use force as a means of discipline. Schools are allowed, however, to use “reasonable physical force” “as necessary to maintain order” or to prevent students from harming themselves, other students or staff or school property.

This exception to the prohibition on physical force allows for wide variation in practice as schools and districts interpret the meaning of “reasonable physical force” that is “necessary” to maintain order. In 2008, the Washington state legislature considered but did not pass a bill that would have narrowed this exception by prohibiting the use of handcuffs and pepper spray in schools, except in emergency situations and by trained personnel. The legislature did allocate funding for the Washington State School Directors’ Association to facilitate a task force and develop a model policy regarding the use of force in schools. That task force identified the lack of training, experience or oversight standards for school security staff as a problem warranting attention, and our review of narrative reports from one school district highlights the urgency of the problem.

Between 2006 and 2008, use of force reports show a total of 8 elementary school students in the Kent School District were handcuffed. Handcuffs were only applied to students in the first and second grade. Other physical restraints were used against a total of 30 students between grades 1 and 6. All of the students involved in the incident reports for elementary schools were boys.

Elementary Schools

The reports from the elementary schools reflect a disturbing reliance on security officers to respond to students with mental illness or emotional or behavioral issues. In one incident, a security officer responded to a report of an “out of control student” in a room for students with behavioral disabilities. The student was yelling, and when he clenched his fists, the officer put him in handcuffs, for “safety reasons.” Several other reports reflect the use of prone restraints, in which students were forced to the floor and held down by an officer (or in some cases, a teacher).

In another incident, an officer called to assist an instructional assistant and a principal who were trying to catch up with an 8-year-old boy running away from school took hold of the student’s hand and “placed him in a palm forward escort technique.” While taking the student back to the school, the officer put him in handcuffs in order to “gain better control.” The student became very angry and agitated when he realized he was being taken to a “quiet room,” and when he tried to pull away, the officer stumbled, the student tripped and fell, and because he was in handcuffs, he could not catch himself with his hands and fell on his face. After falling, the boy started to cry and was then described by the officer as no longer resisting.

Middle Schools

The middle school reports, like those from the elementary schools, reflect a disturbing reliance on physical force and intervention by security officers to respond to students with emotional disturbances, as well as the apparent unnecessary escalation of minor incidents into situations where force was deemed appropriate.

In one incident, a student who refused his teacher’s request to remove his hat ended up in the vice-principal’s office with the teacher, two security officers and the vice-principal. When the student again refused to take off his hat, one of the officers took it off for him. When the student got angry and tried to leave, one officer grabbed his right arm, the other officer grabbed his left arm and the officers took him down, and held him face down on the floor until he agreed to comply. In another incident, a student who went to the lunch line when he was not supposed to ended up being taken to the ground by an officer, escorted to the office and suspended from school. The student was not handcuffed, but only because his hand was in a cast.

Alternatives to Force

Reviewing the reports over time, it becomes apparent that reliance on physical force, or the threat of it, is not the only option for security officers. Seven different officers submitted incident reports for middle schools in 2007-08. Four of those officers did not use physical restraints or handcuffs in any of the reported incidents for that year. One officer used physical restraints on one occasion. One officer used handcuffs twice and physical restraints another time. One officer used handcuffs in five different incidents and used physical restraints in 11 different incidents. Comparing the incident reports from two different semesters at one middle school further illustrates this point. During one semester at a middle school, the security officer reported on eleven incidents. In four of those incidents, the officer used force against a student. During a different semester at the same school, a different security officer reported on thirty-four incidents and force was not used in any of them.

The Apparent Pattern

The most readily apparent pattern in the incident reports from all of the schools was security officers’ reliance on physical restraints and handcuffs to gain control of students with disabilities identified as “non-compliant” or “out of control.” One middle school girl was forced into a “Fishbowl” with physical restraints; another student ended up on the ground and in handcuffs when an officer saw him punch his teacher’s arm. Another student with disabilities was threatened with “OC [pepper] spray,” handcuffed and emergency-expelled when he threatened an officer with a piece of wood. Another student ended up on the ground in handcuffs after he sought refuge in the “Student Adjustment Room.” The most disturbing of those reports were the ones that told an ongoing narrative of repeated reliance on security officers, and the officers’ repeated reliance on physical restraints and handcuffs to respond to the same students. In a series of incidents, a security officer’s reports explain the situations in which the officer used physical restraints to control a seventh grade student with autism. The series of reports, recounting nine different incidents over the course of five months, raises serious and very troubling questions. It reveals a student, his teacher and a security officer left to deal with difficult situations without adequate support, training or supervision. The first reported incident occurred in September. The last was in January, and ended when the student was disciplined after reportedly hitting another student. In that span of time, the student was handcuffed four different times and taken to the ground five different times.

High Schools

At the high schools, students were handcuffed and forced to the ground for similarly minor offenses, and the use of force again appeared to be more commonly used to intervene with students with disabilities. One girl was handcuffed three times in one month. The first time, the security officer was called by an instructional assistant to help when the girl got “out of control.” The student was handcuffed when she “continued to swing her arms and pull away” from the officer. The second time, she was handcuffed and escorted to the security office after kicking and hitting at an instructional assistant. Once in the office, the student “continued to act out, by hitting her head on the copy machine. She eventually fell asleep and when she woke up, she was calm and compliant.” The third time, the instructional assistant brought the student to the security office when the student was “unwilling to behave in class.” When the student again began banging her head and hands on the copy machine, the officer moved her away from it. She then started hitting the arms of the chair; the officer, concerned that “she was going to injure herself or escalate in violence,” then “placed her in handcuffs.”

Kent in Relation to the State

The Kent School District’s policies on corporal punishment and use of “reasonable force” mirror the state law. And, while their reports indicate an urgent need for additional training and supervision, the District’s security program is likely one of the most developed among school districts in the state. The District employs several security officers directly and has developed a detailed Security Department manual and job descriptions for each security officer position. However, among the various officer positions, only the Security Supervisor, responsible for planning, organizing and directing the security program, requires graduation from a police training academy or five years’ experience as a police officer, security officer or in a “closely-related law enforcement field.” The District also provides its officers with training, but the only reference to de-escalation techniques in the training materials explains that “the use of handcuffs and how to de-escalate a situation by applying restraints will be reviewed.” Additionally, in response to prior complaints, the District has developed the detailed reporting requirements that made this review possible.

Relying on handcuffs, pepper spray and physical restraints to control children who are identified as “noncompliant” is not sustainable and fails to ensure safety. In order to ensure safety and respect each student’s rights, the District should again review its policies relating to the use of force, and this time it should be a leader not just in reporting on the use of force but in reducing or eliminating it.
The results from this research project are being used to bolster our policy advocacy around issues of use of force in schools and school discipline. We are continuing to lobby our state legislature to act on critical questions relating to use of force in schools, including restrictions on the use of handcuffs by school officials, and whether school security officers should be required to meet any minimum training or certification requirements. This research project will provide important detail and context to policy discussions we are involved in around best practices for these concerns. In addition, the results of this research will also support our advocacy for improvements in discipline data collection needed to give school administrators the tools to reduce and eliminate racial disparities. We will provide our results to administrators in the Kent School District and use our findings to support ongoing efforts of local community advocates to increase transparency around discipline data in the Kent School District and reduce the use of force against their students.

The ACLU of Washington is grateful to the Poverty & Race Research & Action Council for its generous support of this report. We also express our thanks to the University of Washington Department of Sociology students who, under the instruction of Nika Kabiri and Gretchen Ludwig, provided invaluable research and analysis on the project.

For further information, contact Rose Spidell (spidell@aclu-wa.org), 206/624-2184, x275. Source notes for various items cited are available from her.
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