They handcuffed a seven-year old? How did that work out???

It’s Toolbox Tuesday here—the day when we highlight legal issues involving the discipline of students with disabilities.  The Toolbox is an all-day training program that provides ten “tools” designed to simultaneously serve each student appropriately, while maintaining safety and order in the school building. Today, we’re reviewing a case from New Mexico that ended up with a 50-pound, 49 inch 2nd grader handcuffed to a chair.

This episode began when the teacher’s aide contacted the school social worker, seeking help with C.V., a gifted 2nd grader who received special education services due to autism.

The social worker had trouble with the student also, and contacted the assistant principal, who asked that the boy be brought to her office.  On the way to the A.P.’s office, C.V. ran away.

They could not locate the student at first, and so the school reached out to the parents. The mother did not answer several calls. The dad was busy at work and could not come to the school.

The student ran to the nurse’s office and locked himself in the bathroom.  From there, he bolted for the cafeteria.  At this point, the school called in Office Sanchez, its security officer.

Seeing the officer on the way, C.V. ran again. Officer Sanchez called the parents.  Dad was at the airport and could not get to the school for a few hours. But they reached the mother this time, and she said she could be at the school in 30 minutes.  Officer Sanchez then asked the mother for permission to restrain the boy. She said “Yes” but later testified that she thought that this would be a hug or a hold—not steel handcuffs.

Officer Sanchez did not immediately cuff the child.  She led the child to a room and blocked the door.  The boy kicked his legs, swung his arms and pulled power cables out of the wall.  When the social worker approached the student to try to calm him down, he swung the power cord at her.  He kicked the social worker and then Officer Sanchez.  Still no handcuffs.

Then the boy began playing with a rubber band. When he was told to give it to Officer Sanchez, he shot her with it.  They then tussled over the rubber band, and the boy kicked the officer.  Officer Sanchez warned C.V. that this might lead to handcuffs.  The boy ignored this warning, continuing to kick and attempt to get out of his chair.  Officer Sanchez cuffed him to the chair.

This did not calm the boy down. The boy continued to cry, yell and struggle, at one point dragging the chair with him as he tried to kick the officer. Mom arrived and demanded that the cuffs come off. They did. Mom took pictures of the welts and scratches on the boy’s wrists.

The mother withdrew the boy from that school and enrolled him in another school in the same district.  Then the mother sued, claiming that the district violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by discriminating against C.V. based on his disability.

The federal court ruled for the district on this one, and the 10th Circuit affirmed that ruling. The court did not express any opinion about the propriety of using handcuffs on a small child. In fact, the court’s analysis begins with a disclaimer: “Our role is not to opine on whether it was wrong to handcuff C.V.”  Instead, the court focused on whether or not the district had discriminated on the basis of disability.

The court had little trouble concluding that this episode was based on the student’s conduct—not his disability.  After all, the student was out-of-control for almost two hours.  But the parents argued that the conduct was a manifestation of the boy’s disability. What about that?  The court:

Appellants fail to cite any evidence showing his conduct indeed was a manifestation of his disability. Indeed, they cite no authority suggesting a school may not regulate a student’s conduct if that conduct is a manifestation of a disability.

I expect some of you are wondering about that last statement. Can a school “regulate” a student’s conduct if the conduct is a manifestation of disability?  Yes.  The law prohibits a disciplinary change of placement that is based on behavior that is a manifestation. Other forms of “regulation” are not prohibited.  Available forms of “regulation” include short term suspension, short term ISS, and physical restraint.  Of course all of those forms of regulation must be done in compliance with state law. That was not at issue here.

In the Toolbox training we talk about physical restraint, and when it is appropriate to use it under Texas law. If you are interested in Toolbox training, please give me a holler! Or an e-holler!

The case of J.V. v. Albuquerque Public Schools was decided by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals on February 19, 2016.  We found it at 116 LRP 6184.