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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Handcuffing of 6-year-old reignites questions over NHCS restraint, seclusion

A student was handcuffed by an SRO at College Park Elementary last month. (Port City Daily/file).

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — A first-grader was handcuffed at school late last month, reigniting community members’ calls to reform New Hanover County Schools’ approach to behavior management. 

The 6-year-old at College Park Elementary was restrained by a school resource officer during lunch time on Jan. 26 after more than 20 minutes of evading school staff, climbing on furniture and throwing supplies. 

READ MORE: NHCS committee recommends restrictions on transgender middle school athletes

The New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office maintains the handcuffs were necessary to deescalate the situation. Other community members and anti-seclusion and restraint activists argue the incident is a result of the district’s lack of a proactive method to prevent behavior problems.

According to the incident report filed by College Park’s principal Debra Calvert, staff called for student support at 11:40 a.m. after the 6-year-old ran out of the cafeteria and refused to go back to class. Calvert was in a meeting at the time and was notified other staff members had the child in their care. 

In the report, Calvert said the girl, who has a behavior intervention plan, has done this many times. Under the plan, staff members escort her to a room where she can be supervised while attempts are made to deescalate.

At 12:08 p.m., the document states Calvert was notified handcuffs were placed on the student. The prinicpal left the meeting and told staff to remove the restraints. In a conversation in her office, Calvert said she told the SRO, unnamed in the report, placing handcuffs on students was “not proper procedure.”

NHCS spokesperson Russell Clark told Port City Daily the district does not use mechanical restraint. However, the NHCS policy manual states mechanical restraint can only be used in the following circumstances: 

  • when included in the student’s IEP, Section 504 plan, or behavior intervention plan, or as otherwise prescribed by a medical or related service provider;
  • when using seat belts or other safety restraints during transportation
  • as reasonably needed to obtain possession of weapons or other dangerous objects on the person or within the control of a student;
  • as reasonably needed for self-defense;
  • as reasonably needed to ensure the safety of any student, employee, volunteer, or other person

According to New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Jerry Brewer, SROs are not beholden to the district’s policies. He shared that SROs can make their own decisions to use handcuffs based on their read of a situation, training and experience. 

“It was not wrong,” Brewer said of the incident. 

Still, Calvert included in the report two supervisors from the sheriff’s office came to speak with the SRO. She said they told her they would review procedure with the SRO, and make certain he understood protocol and acted only in accordance with administration. 

Port City Daily asked Brewer what the protocol was on handcuffing an elementary student. 

“There are no guidelines,” he said. “It is the same as the training experience of that deputy.” 

The incident report detail the SRO did act in accordance with administration; at least one staff member asked him to put the handcuffs on the student. The two other staff present during the incident were the school counselor and a Community in Schools representative, both of whom have experience working with the student. Their names in the incident report have been redacted. 

The staff member that requested the restraint reported the girl left the cafeteria after asking to get her candy from the classroom and was told to wait until after lunch. She ran to the classroom instead and started eating the candy there. The staff member reported the SRO checked on the two and left. 

When the other students returned from lunch, the 6-year-old again ran away; eventually, she was directed to the counselor’s office, where they were rejoined by the SRO. 

The staff member reported the girl would get upset and scream if someone tried to talk to her. She then started jumping on the table and other furniture, throwing stuffed animals across the room. Someone who tried to intervene reported the girl’s behavior would become “more destructive and unsafe.”

According to the report, the SRO turned over a table and chairs were removed to ensure the student’s safety. Then another staff member called the mother to pick up her child; staff members were notified the grandmother was on the way to the school. 

An employee reported the first-grader’s behavior escalated while they waited for her to be picked up; she attempted to climb a bookshelf, threw markers and pencils on the floor. 

According to the report, someone asked to bear hug the girl to restrain her and reported the SRO asked if staff wanted to use handcuffs, to which the employee responded yes. The girl then started to cry while the officer asked her to calm down.

Another employee’s statement details the mother and grandmother were called and put on speakerphone to pacify the student, which didn’t work. 

NHCS did not respond when asked if the employees involved followed district procedure.

Brewer, who reviewed the SRO’s body camera footage, said anyone watching the video would understand the need for the restraint. He said the girl was violent, holding pencils in her hand in a “stabbing” motion.  

“She is just going off the Richter scale,” Brewer said. 

Brewer said after the student was handcuffed, the officer rubbed her back and tried to calm her. He said the cuffs were removed within two minutes. 

“He got her to calm down with something they couldn’t do for 20 minutes,” Brewer said. 

Co-founder of Love Our Children, a violence prevention nonprofit, and former early childhood education certified teacher Peter Rawtisch said restraints should not have been in the equation, no matter how long an episode lasts. 

“Young children have temper tantrums and we don’t know why,” Rawitsch said. “But we pretty much know that a child’s behavior is an indication of them trying to tell you something, to communicate, maybe something she didn’t have words to communicate with. And it’s our job as adults, caretakers and educators to try to listen to her.”

Rawitsch added the incident “reeks” of the disparate application of the discipline policies in NHCS. He pointed to research showing the “adultification” of childhood discipline, especially when it comes to Black and brown children. The student placed in handcuffs is Black.

READ MORE: Students of color were secluded, restrained 4 times more than white peers in NHCS last year

“There is research looking at Black children, and specifically Black girls, and how the data shows that adults view Black girls as being more adult-like, less innocent than their white peers,” Rawitsch said. 

Multiple studies have demonstrated the negative consequences of “adultification” of Black children in education, healthcare, the justice system and other institutions. The discrimination can lead to negative financial, well-being and safety outcomes for Black youth. 

Rawitsch and fellow activists advocate for methods to prevent crisis situations before they happen. 

The district uses the Crisis Prevention Institute’s crisis development model, which outlines how to handle crises at each level to defuse them. Trainees are taught to be reactive: how to respond to anxious, defensive and risk behavior to guide children out of an episode. 

Love Our Children and other community activists say the district should use the Collaborative & Proactive Solutions model, developed by Ross Greene. It’s a proactive model that addresses why a child is not meeting an expectation early on to develop a solution, before the child’s frustration leads to crisis. 

Both approaches are evidence-based. 

“The best strategy is higher upstream strategies,” Rawitsch said. “That is putting programs and practices in place that provide children with a safe learning environment where children begin to trust the adults around them.”

Rawitsch said exclusionary policies are the first that need to change, like the one amended in November to only allow seclusion in the most extreme circumstances. Another key component is having adequate staff to make sure each student’s needs are being met. 

“Some of the policies we currently have in place are only addressing the other children and the other adults and somehow are neglecting the children who are crying out for help through their behavior,” Rawitsch said. “We want to make sure that everyone is safe.” 

NHCS has agreed to provide training from Lives in the Balance, a CPD-based group, for its staff. The contract was signed Dec. 2; training has yet to be scheduled. 

Rawitsch acknowledges crisis situations will still happen, but the more children remain in the classroom while addressing their behavior needs, the better. 

Brewer said incidents like this are rare. 

“It’s not something that’s happened a lot,” Brewer said. “It’s just something people don’t like to hear.”

Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at 

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