By Leischen Stelter
In April, I wrote a blog, “Handcuffing Kindergartener is the Safest Way for Police to Respond to Escalating Situation,” after an incident in Georgia led police to handcuff a kindergartner who was throwing a violent tantrum. (You can refresh your memory of the incident by reading this news article.)
Yesterday, I received a correspondence from a representative of Strategies for Youth, an organization that aims to promote improved interactions between police officers and children. They drafted a response to the blog post and asked if I would be interested in posting it. This is an incident that brings up a lot of questions about police response, so I decided to post it in entirety below. (As a side note: For the blog, I interviewed Jeffrey Hawkins, a former police officer, who has experience responding to incidents involving children. Some of what is quoted below is attributed to me, but should actually be attributed to Hawkins and his experience as a police officer.) Regardless, this is a discussion worth having, so please feel free to leave your comments below. Here it is:
Law Enforcement Need Options, Not “Kiddie Handcuffs”
Paige Pihl Buckley, Strategies for Youth
This April, 6-year-old Salecia Johnson was removed from her Milledgeville, Georgia school in handcuffs after throwing a temper tantrum. The girl had been sent to the principal’s office after allegedly pushing two of her kindergarten classmates. Once there, Principal Dianne Popp tried in vain to calm the child who tore items off the office walls, threw books, and knocked over a small shelf that struck the principal in the leg. When the principal was unable to regain control, she called police.
A local officer responded. He wrote in the incident report that “I attempted to calm Johnson down. Johnson then pulled away and began actively resisting and fighting with me.” The officer handcuffed the child, arrested her and took her to the local police station where she was charged with assault and damage to property, according to the local news network, WMAZ-TV. The principal suspended her for the rest of the academic year.
When the story of Johnson’s arrest became national news, police were widely and loudly criticized for the restraint and arrest of such a young girl. Yet Leischen Stelter, a blogger for InPublicSafety.com, argued that “If the situation has escalated to the point where school officials find it necessary to call police, chances are the child will need to be restrained.” She wrote that handcuffing a child is “often the only way” to keep the child and those around him or her safe.
While Stelter’s point of view has vocal proponents, it also has many detractors. Dr. Robert Rail, a renowned expert on the use of restraints who has trained elite police in more than 56 countries and consulted for the United Nations in both the Balkans and Iraq, said, “Handcuffing a very small child is just wrong, so wrong.”
He argues that out-of-control children should not be a law enforcement issue in the first place. “These are issues that should be handled by psychologists, psychiatrists – people who have focused their lives on understanding children.” His approach for these issues is: first classroom teachers should contact the administration, next parents or guardians should be contacted, and finally an ambulance should be called. Medical professionals, not law enforcement, should make a medical decision about how to deal with children who cannot self-regulate.
Dr. Rail fears that negative interactions with police, like the interaction between the officer and Salecia Johnson, could have long-term ramifications. “What is this young person going to think of police going forward?” he asked. “We want our children to go to our police when they have problems and if they view them in a perspective of being an enemy,” he warned, “they won’t do that.”
Dr. Stuart Ablon, a Harvard Medical School child psychiatrist and director of the Think: Kids Initiative at Massachusetts General Hospital Department of Psychiatry, argued that the idea that restraint and arrest are “often the only way” to deal with difficult children is deeply flawed. “A quick dose of empathy followed by an invitation to problem solve is a much better approach,” he said. “The threat of potential consequences, like arrest, only adds emotional fuel to the fire,” he said, making it even harder for a difficult child to calm down and think clearly.
The approach taught by Think: Kids involves a more collaborative effort in which authority figures prioritize empathy and relationship building. Instead of viewing challenging behaviors, like those exhibited by Salecia Johnson, as volitional or criminal, this approach views them as outward signs of cognitive deficiencies. In other words, rather than being attention seeking, manipulative, or a sign of poor motivation, these behaviors are manifestations of lagging thinking skills, and are best dealt with through the teaching these skills. “Punishing a kid who does not know another way to act is not going to get you very far,” Dr. Ablon explained.
Dr. Ablon has seen this approach work in deescalating some very difficult children and teens in many schools and treatment programs. In one southern Oregon treatment program for children with serious behavioral issues, the use of restraints plummeted from 600 to fifty when staff began using this approach.
Kids will be kids, and it often falls on the shoulders of authority figures, like police, to determine how best to respond to difficult situations. When police officers and other authority figures are given the appropriate tools and resources, handcuffing and arrest are not the only options for dealing with difficult youth. “Both our children and our society will be safer if police officers are given better options and support,” said Dr. Rail. “We give police impossible tasks and then we want them to perform perfectly, and when they do react we are unfairly critical of the action they take.”
Had Salecia Johnson’s arresting officer, Principal Popp, or even Johnson’s teacher been trained in these tactics, perhaps the incident would not have escalated to the point where it made national headlines. By providing law enforcement the training and protocols for working with some of our most difficult youth we will make officers’ jobs easier, relationships with youth less adversarial, and everyone safer.