A nation views on TV an eight-year-old boy who is placed in handcuffs by a school resource officer. The child’s arms are behind his back, and he is yelling. Collectively, we experience horror watching this take place—in a classroom no less. We learn that the child has ADHD, and that another child, also with ADHD, has been treated similarly.
As a nation we seem to agree that this was not an appropriate form of discipline. In fact, my husband pointed out that if a dog were treated that way—tied to a chair with legs bound together—it would be a crime. What we are seeing here appears to be child abuse, which is a crime.
Without knowing the specifics of the case—for example, whether the children had IEPs, whether there were any type of behavior plans in place for these children and if so, whether the plans included assistance by the resource officer—I would have to speculate that what happened was an escalating chain of events that resulted in a impromptu call to the resource officer. But this may not be the case.
We know that youngsters with ADHD are more likely than youngsters without ADHD to exhibit the types of disruptive behavior that can lead to harsh discipline and abuse. We also know that youngsters with the combination of ADHD and disruptive behavior do best when they have a calm, structured environment that employs positive behavior supports; a confident teacher who administers discipline fairly and skillfully; and schoolwork that is appropriate to the child’s needs in terms of level of challenge, length and type of task. Rules and consequences should be spelled out, taught systematically and thoughtfully, and enforced calmly and consistently.
The school’s job is to create an environment in which disruptive behavior is less likely to occur, and in which it is handled well when it does occur. This isn’t easy, and it can only occur when all staff receive training and operate as a team. Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) offers such a school-wide approach, and is well-established. Given such a backdrop, the incidence of disruption requiring any type of restraint will be greatly reduced.
Federal guidelines issued by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan state that restraint should only be used when there is risk of injury to someone, and that mechanical restraints should not be used. Restraint should be employed only as an emergency procedure, and never as a punishment. Each school district should have an established policy regarding restraint (and seclusion). There is absolutely no place for handcuffs, much less using them to bind a child’s arms behind his or her back.
And finally, let us consider this: Handcuffs connote criminal behavior. In this incident, school personnel saw fit to stigmatize these children as criminals. Without question this will impact their perception of themselves and others’ perception of them, perhaps for the rest of their lives.
Ann Abramowitz, PhD, a professor in the department of psychology at Emory University, is chair of the CHADD Professional Advisory Board.