Children should not be criminalised for acting out, whether they have special needs or not

The 10-year-old boy cries, mostly quietly, "I don't want to be touched, I don't like to be touched. ... Please don't touch me," as the officers handcuff him and walk him toward the car.

His mother, who is capturing the exchange on her smartphone camera, tells the officers that he has autism and that he is scared, but they tell her she can't ride in the car with him. The officers close the door, so they can drive a crying child to jail.

If the video shocks you, and it should, imagine how often children with autism or other disabilities are being arrested in situations where there's no video, no parent present and no viral outrage. If teachers, administrators, and cops continue to criminalize children for violating what I have come to call a "cult of compliance," punishing them for acting in ways that come naturally, how can we decriminalize disability?

Last October, the boy -- John Benjamin Haygood -- was being disruptive and allegedly hit, kicked and scratched his teacher's aide on three separate occasions, according to an incident report from the Okeechobee County Sheriff's Office in Florida.

The report says that John expressed frustration over his work being too hard and that he needed more help but his aide wasn't helping him enough. During the second incident, the report says that John's father alleged that the aide had pinched his son. John was throwing paper balls, allegedly hitting other children, and refused to go on timeout. When his aide tried to remove him from the class, John hit and kicked at him, the report says.

At the time of the third incident on November 1, his aide decided to press charges. Recently in a statement, the aide said that he only pressed the charges to "get [John's] mother to realize he needs additional help." He's indicated that he may drop the charges, claiming the lesson has been learned. But the trauma resulting from the arrest, charges or not, won't quickly fade. It is unclear why the 10-year-old was now being arrested, six months after the incident. His mother said that she was not notified of any charges or warrants out for her son's arrest.

The events that occurred sound bad, of course. No one wants their child to be hit by a classmate, but the job of educators is to assess how to create the least restrictive environment for children with disabilities to learn. Behavioral meltdowns happen, especially for autistic children, but educators can de-escalate tough situations and use their knowledge to avoid escalation in the future.

The fact that John articulated, after the first incident, that he was upset because he felt like he wasn't getting enough help from his teacher's aide should have resulted in a different response -- not repeated calls to the police.

As the video went viral this week, I called up several experts. Matthew Dietz, a disability rights lawyer in Florida, told me that disabled students being arrested for disciplinary offenses are all too common.

For example, "I represent a 6-year-old who was arrested and held in a psych unit for 72 hours and placed in seclusion," he said. "So the only thing surprising is it (the Florida incident) was on video."

Dietz said he is worried about the school-to-prison pipeline. "For many children," he told me, "use of police and detention facilities for minor behavioral issues leads to a life involved with the criminal justice system."

Finn Gardiner, a graduate student who is autistic and studying at Brandeis University's Heller School, similarly emphasized how common these incidents are.

"Usually," he said, "when you hear about these kinds of cases, (the kids) are black or Latino." He said that disabled youth of all races are disproportionately "more likely to get suspended, likely to be expelled from school, likely to have negative contact with school resource officers (cops in school) and more likely to be sent to 'juvenile justice.'"

The data backs this up. A Center for Public Integrity study found that although about 14% of all Florida students have disabilities, they make up 19% of all arrests.

However, the state is far from having the worst percentage. Disabled students in Delaware make up nearly 17% of the school system but amount to 34% of arrests. Nearly 20% of New Hampshire students are disabled, but they represent 39% percent of arrests.

Disabled children of color are especially likely to experience arrest rather than a more appropriate response.

Samantha Crane, a lawyer and director of public policy for the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, said that schools should at least develop "behavior intervention plans" to ameliorate situations like this, although often such plans are too "coercive" in design.

Why are schools so reliant on law enforcement? Crane told me that she and other disability rights advocates are worried that schools are using law enforcement to sidestep compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which was passed to ensure that students with disabilities received appropriate services and education.

She said, "By referring a kid to law enforcement, the school can bypass IDEA's procedures for suspension and expulsion of kids with disabilities."

If a behavior is determined to be disability-related, the school must address it as an educational issue. But, she said, "There's no such requirement when referring a kid to law enforcement. Schools are actually telling teachers and paraprofessionals to press charges against students, in order to get the students out of their class."

John apparently didn't like his aide and threw paper, then it escalated into a full meltdown where he responded violently. That's no excuse for arresting the 10-year-old.

Lydia Brown, a well-known autistic writer, told me that the teachers must do better.

"You're an adult. Being hit (by paper) is not going to kill you. And if you think that being hit means some kid needs to be handcuffed, you're in the wrong job. No one said teaching was going to be easy. But you don't punish somebody when they're panicking."

Let the video shock you. But know that this is not an isolated incident. If you look around your school, your neighborhood, and your community, you will find disabled children being criminalized for their inability to follow the often arbitrary "norms" of society. No child should be made a criminal for just being themselves.

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