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In 2014, a Missouri second-grader sat in the principal’s office of his elementary school waiting for his parents to arrive. The scene likely wouldn’t strike anyone as surprising, except one detail: he was waiting in handcuffs.
The student, named as “K.W.P.” in his lawsuit against those involved, was removed from his classroom by Officer Brandon Craddock following a shouting match with a classmate. According to the 8th Circuit’s opinion, K.W.P. admits he did not want to follow Officer Craddock to the principal’s office. After K.W.P. attempted to walk away several times, Officer Craddock grabbed him by the wrist and tried to pull him along. When K.W.P. tried to tear himself from Craddock’s grip and grabbed a handrail in the hallway, Craddock resorted to handcuffing K.W.P.’s hands behind his back.
At the time, K.W.P. was seven years old, under four feet tall, and weighed around 50 pounds.
The Missouri branch of the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit on K.W.P.’s behalf in 2016, alleging that being handcuffed for those 20 minutes violated his constitutional rights. Three years later the 8th Circuit dismissed K.W.P.’s suit, finding that the police officer involved and the school principal were entitled to qualified immunity because they did not violate K.W.P.’s rights against unreasonable search and seizure.
Other courts have held that law enforcement officers violate a student’s rights if they handcuff the child for “purely punitive” purposes. In a 2013 case out of Alabama, the 11th Circuit held that handcuffing a 9-year-old as punishment for misbehaving in P.E. class was a violation of the child’s rights. However, the court emphasized that what made the handcuffing excessively intrusive was the fact that it was not done to protect anyone’s safety.
In K.W.P.’s case, the court found that because he attempted to flee the officer, he posed a safety risk to himself. Further, the court held that even though K.W.P. remained handcuffed after he began complying with the officer and school staff, the 15-20 minutes he sat in cuffs was not unreasonable.
What this case fails to address is whether police officers should be present in an elementary school, to begin with, and what steps should be taken before resorting to seemingly drastic disciplinary measures. The type of discipline allowed in a school setting varies by state, and physical restraint lies in an even more gray area.
Many have heard stories (or have their own) of being struck with a ruler in elementary school. And although several states have banned corporal punishment in schools, a significant number have not. Students in 22 states, including Missouri and Alabama, still face the threat of physical punishment for misbehaving at school.
Where physical restraint fits in is open to interpretation. However, it’s likely no coincidence that the same states seeing instances of children in handcuffs also allow corporal punishment.