More than police preparation needed

Sometimes when police officers interact with children and youths with Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, the results concern me, as noted previously in my posts Letter to editors, Law enforcement protection, and Police training recommended (also see mollyg’s comment on the last of these posts). I came across another instance recently and want to report it here with links for further study.

According to a report from the Oregon Advocacy Center (OAC), an independent and not-for-profit organization that provides advocates for people with disabilities in Oregon (US), the story is about an 11-year-old boy (4’4″ or 1.3 meters tall and 65 lbs or 30 kilograms in weight) who had a long history of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders. The boy, referred to as “J” in the report, lived in a residential facility that had a school on the premises. One day, in an apparent rage, he destroyed items in his special education classroom and a teacher aide suffered scrapes and bruises when unsuccessfully restraining him. The teacher and aide took the other children out of the room and sought assistance. Someone called the police, who apparently arrived promptly. Meanwhile, the boy barricaded himself in the room.

On October 4, 2004, four armed police officers wearing riot gear and pre-authorized by a police captain to use a taser gathered in an Oregon elementary school hallway outside of a special education classroom. From behind the barricaded doorway, they could hear the screaming and swearing of a single fifth-grader. He had been trashing the room’s contents for thirty minutes or more and throwing them through the hole where the door’s window had been. Eventually, the police got behind a table and entered the room by pushing aside the furniture piled against the door.

As the four officers entered, one with a drawn taser and the other three “capable of providing lethal cover if the need arose,” the boy held a five-inch long metal drawing compass with a pointed end over his head as if to throw it. The officer who carried the taser fired his darts. The boy dropped on his back, twitching as a 5-second cycle of 50,000 volts went through his body. When he stopped moving, he was lifted to his feet and handcuffed.

In my view, this situation represents several failings, many of which the OAC reported noted. It’s easy to express concern about use of a taser on a small child; the police officers needed to know and employ other ways of handling the situation, to be sure. However, the situation should never have been allowed to escalate to the point that someone at the school called police; there are both preventative measures and means of responding to violent outbursts that can be employed. Here’s more from the OAC report:

The injection of police into situations where special education students have emotional outbursts is a short-sighted remedy that has not been shown to be effective in our state or elsewhere. More importantly, calling police as a method to control children like J is, in our view, almost never necessary and almost always traumatic. In all but the truly dangerous circumstance where a student poses an imminent threat to another person, we believe that the introduction of police into the mix should be viewed as an indication of poor educational practice and planning.

To their credit, it appears that many people involved did good things. Teachers had received (apprently ineffective) training in restraint. Teachers took other students out of harm’s way. School personnel were apparently concerned about risks to the boy himself.

I am in no position to second guess the people involved in this situation. The realists among we special educators know that sometimes these students have outbursts. However, I see it as a good example of how people in my position and other similar positions—those charged with preparing teachers and other public servants to do their jobs—need to anticipate the possibility that our students will have to address such volitile situations. We need to make sure that special educators, not just the police, know how to handle problems such as those that this boy apparently presented.

Please add to the list by commenting: Schools need policies and procedures for handling emergencies. Teachers need to provide environments that reduce the probability of outbursts. Teachers need real practice (not just idle theorizing) about calm restraint. Administrators need the same. Etc.

Link to the OAC report. Link to an advertisement for a book by Dennis Debbaudt entitled Autism, Advocates, and Law Enforcement Professionals. A friend told me that developmental disabilities councils in US states have created or are creating guidelines on interactions; if you know of such documents in your area (US or not), please pass them along to me.

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