Kathryn Seifert Ph.D.

Stop The Cycle

Would You Handcuff a 6-Year Old?

Schools are in charge of students safety, but how far should they go?

Posted May 03, 2012

Recently in both Indiana and Georgia, 6-year-old students were removed from their elementary classrooms by police. One was charged with intimidation and battery after kicking the principal and the other, while not charged with a crime by the police, was initially hauled away in handcuffs. In both cases something had to be done, but the questions remain: Should six-year-olds really ever be taken away by police? Is using handcuffs crossing the line?

The rates of children feeling unsafe in school vary by study. In a recent study, 23% of 5th graders sometimes felt unsafe at or going to or from school. Another study found that only 5% of youth 12-18 felt unsafe in school in 2007. Regardless, many schools have determined that they must maintain order in the learning environment and protect other students, even if that means stricter safety measures and more frequent police use.

The reality is that all of our children should feel safe in school and some children have out of control behaviors that are dangerous. Therefore, having policemen and women in schools today is quite common and perhaps unavoidable. These law enforcement men and women are called resource officers in Maryland and they stay in the schools on a regular basis. Their job is not just to keep public order, but to make relationships with children so that in some cases they can take actions to prevent horrible tragedies.

Why Some Kids Are Violent

Most children are aggressive to some degree as toddlers. As they mature and gain language, adults can teach them to problem solve, interact with others without aggression, get their needs met, take turns, and share. Those that have gained these skills through family members and others are generally non-aggressive by the time they are 5 or 6 years old and enter school (Hay, 2005). However, as always, there are exceptions and several possible reasons for the aggressive behaviors of those who do not mature as quickly.

  • The efforts of adults to set boundaries and redirect the child’s aggressive tendencies has not been sufficiently effective (parents need help with parenting)
  • Someone has modeled aggressive behavior as a way to get one’s needs met (there is child abuse, bullying, or domestic violence)
  • There is an unresolved trauma in the child’s life (a child is or was badly treated or neglected)
  • There is a medical or neurological condition causing the behavior of the child (such as a head injury, tumor, mal-development of the brain due to malnutrition or maltreatment, biologically based mental illness or brain disease, or toxins)

What Should Be Done?

An elementary school teacher works with her students
The safety of students, teachers, and administrators is vital and law enforcement can help create the right environment. Schools using resource officers who get to know the children are a good model for this.

However, it’s important to remember that elementary school children who act out are reacting to something. It could be domestic violence at home, bullying at school, a neurological disorder, or some combination of problems. Therefore, a child who acts out needs a thorough assessment to determine the source of the “externalized” behavior. In the same vein, a depressed, anxious, and fearful child may be affected by similar problems in the environment, but “internalize” his/her reactions to events such as domestic violence. With this in mind, one of the best ways to prevent situations that lead up to police action is offering school based mental health services.

Schools need to have programs to encourage respect of others, such as Operation Respect and the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program (OBPP). There needs to be a zero tolerance policy for aggressive behavior because bullying begets more bullying, and even those who are bullied can turn into bullies themselves, to conceal shame or anxiety and regain power.

Families must also be involved in the solution. If there is domestic violence or child maltreatment at home, it must be ended to change the behavior of the child. If the child is reacting to past trauma or has PTSD, it must be treated. If the parents need help with parenting skills, this needs to be part of the solution too. Basically, there are no easy answers.

Arresting children in the classroom may be a necessary last resort if there is true danger, but the situation will always need further review and support from the adult community to create a positive impact from an unfortunate event. Giving children and families the support they need before the situation gets out of control is the best answer and should be the first step—school based mental health services are a good vehicle for this type of preventative service.

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–Dr. Kathy Seifert

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