Child Handcuffed and School Policies Questioned

Dec 9, 2014

Greene County is buzzing this week over a surprising confrontation at one of its schools.  A four-year-old kid with attention deficit disorder caused a ruckus in the pre-K classroom, and when the principal could not restore calm, the local sheriff handcuffed the child and took him away in a squad car.

This story began in mid-October when a child at Nathanael Greene Primary School allegedly threw blocks, climbed over desks, hit, scratched, and kicked the principal and the director of special education. A sheriff’s deputy assigned to the schools was summoned, and his boss -- County Sheriff Steven Smith – says the student was handcuffed.

"The boy was out of control, basically, throwing his arms around and kicking-- trying to kick the deputy, trying to run away, and the deputy felt that putting the handcuffs on him was for his safety as well as everybody else's.

The child's mother, Tracy Wood, was notified, arriving at school soon after she got the call.

"When you call a parent to get their child, when they get to the school, you expect the child to be there-- especially when you arrive in a timely manner." Instead, she was met by the principal who said the boy had been transported to the sheriff’s office.  Wood went right over and found her son’s legs in shackles.

“Once he got inside the office, since he tried to run and kick the deputies, they took the handcuffs off him and put the leg shackles on him, " said Smith.

Wood was appalled.

"My son is a very loving, caring, protective little boy. He deserves to go to school and feel safe and know that he'll come back home to his mommy. He won't be carted off like a criminal."

She says officials provoked the child with their show of force.

Ken Trump, a school security consultant based in Cleveland, notes that police officers working in schools rarely restrain children with handcuffs.

"Because they realize that they're working in a child-centered environment, they try to address those behaviors age and developmentally, and they're not as quick as people would think they would be to cuff 'em and stuff 'em."

And Charlottesville psychologist Jeffrey Fracher says the use of shackles and handcuffs on a four-year-old could have long-term consequences.

"I can't imagine any scenario where it would be appropriate to handcuff a child that young.

"What we know about childhood development and psychological development suggests that could be also be highly traumatizing to a child."

What’s more, 76 percent of Virginia students placed under restraint already have some sort of disability. That concerns Colleen Miller, director of the Richmond-based disAbility Law Center.

"When restraint is used, it means you failed." Virginia places no limits on the use of physical restraints in school, but lawmakers could introduce a bill in the General Assembly next year – a measure that would limit the use of handcuffs and provide for better training of teachers, administrators, and police.

That comes too late for Tracy Wood, who says her son – now five years of age – has been suspended  indefinitely and suffers nightmares as a result of his encounter.

Citing federal privacy laws, the school superintendent won’t say whether any policies will change, but the matter could come up this week when the Greene County School Board meets.