Sunday, January 8, 2012

Handcuffing Students: Un peu outré?

This isn’t eligible for the Curmie because the key events took place last year, but boy-oh-boy would it have been a contender.

Last June, the Southern Poverty Law Center brought suit against the Jackson (MS) Public School District, alleging that an Capital City Alternative School routinely handcuffs students to railings as punishment for minor infractions. Jody Owens, the head of the SPLC’s Mississippi office, argued that:
At the highest level of the district, Jackson Public Schools officials have failed to protect students from a prison-like environment where children are subject to regular shackling and chained to poles and railings as a consequence for minor, non-criminal violations of school rules. Not only does this handcuffing policy violate the U.S. Constitution but it demonstrates a diseased school culture and a broken model of school discipline that focuses on criminalizing students at the expense of educating them.
Assuming the allegations to be true, Mr. Owens seems to have hit the proverbial nail squarely on the head.

Here are some of the specifics:
• A 15-year-old female student was handcuffed to a railing for several hours after she was accused of greeting her friend too loudly in the school hallway.

• A 16-year-old student with an emotional disability was shackled to a railing for an entire school day because the student did not wear a belt. The student was even forced to eat lunch while handcuffed.

• One student spent an entire school day handcuffed and shackled to a railing because he wore shoes that school officials deemed to be the wrong color.
Um… wow. My initial reaction is that these charges couldn’t possibly be true. But there are two problems with this view. First off, the SPLC is sometimes given to flights of interpretative fancy, but they generally get their facts right. Secondly, the school actually confirms the allegations, at least in general terms.

Yes, says school principal Marie Harris, the practice of handcuffing students to a railing began in 2006, when a student tried to run from the school towards Interstate 220. She argues the practice is done in good faith, for student safety.

OK, let’s be clear. Students are at this school instead of a regular elementary or high school because they have been “suspended/expelled from the Jackson Public Schools for 10 days or longer. The program also serves as a learning alternative for students who had difficulty adjusting to the regular classroom setting or who were discipline problems in the classroom or school itself.” True, Jackson Public Schools expel students at twice the national average. Even so, it’s reasonable to suggest that every kid at the school presents a set of challenges which require some tough decision-making by administrators and teachers alike.

It is, therefore, easy to believe that handcuffing a self-destructive student to a railing might seem a reasonable short-term alternative. But the examples alleged by the SPLC go far beyond interim fixes, and even further beyond student safety issues. Shackling a student for wearing the wrong color shoes? Are you kidding me?

The reason the case is in the news now is that the SPLC has demanded on discovery the pertinent documents relating to the practice. School officials claim such documents exist, but have yet to turn over any of them, and are resisting doing so.

What is especially disturbing here is the school’s belligerence. They claim that “Jackson Public Schools cooperates in the discovery process, and has asked the court to prevent the Southern Poverty Law Center from engaging in harassing discovery tactics, all in an effort to embarrass and misrepresent the integrity of the school district.” I understand that nobody likes to get sued, and they’re likely to get a little prickly about it. Fine.

But the suit demands no monetary damages. All the SPLC wants to do is to have the school stop “[creating] a prison-like environment.” (Yes, I understand that a decision against the school might serve as an impetus for subsequent suits by specific students’ parents.) The lawsuit exists only because the school apparently refused to change its policies without one.

What the school needs to do is one of three things: a). offer reasonable evidence that the allegations are false, or at least deny that shackling and handcuffing has occurred frequently, for extended periods of time, or as punishment for trivial infractions, b). justify the practice [good luck with this one], or c). just stop it. Instead, administrators and lawyers have chosen to be confrontational and uncooperative, accusing the SPLC of trying to embarrass them. And they do have a point, there. They’re doing very well at embarrassing themselves without any assistance.

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