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Kentucky Restraint Lawsuit Focuses Attention on School Resource Officers

UPDATED

The widely publicized case of a 3rd grader shown cuffed at the arms by school-based sheriff's deputy is just the latest example of why such officers need to stay out of school discipline, says the head of a national group of school-based resource officers.

"Officers that are not properly trained are getting pulled into these situations," said Mo Canady, the executive director of the National Association of School Resource officers. "School discipline is not the role of the school resource officer." 

Kevin Sumner, who taught for four years in the 4,000-student Covington, Ky., district before becoming a law enforcement officer, was accused in a lawsuit filed Monday of violating the constitutional and Americans with Disabilities Act rights of two elementary school students by handcuffing them behind the back at the arms. The lawsuit contends that the restraints were meant as punishment, not because the children represented a danger to themselves or to others. Both students have disabilities. The ACLU released videos of one handcuffing incident, an edited version of which is embedded above.

S.R v. Kenton County Sheriff's Office was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, as well as the Children's Law Center in Covington, and Dinsmore & Shohl, a Cincinnati law firm. Sumner, the county sheriff's office, and county Sheriff Charles Korzenborn were named in the suit. The sheriff's department did not return a request for comment on Tuesday. 

[UPDATE (Aug 6): Korzenborn, the Kenton County sheriff, released a statement to local media on Tuesday. It said: "School superintendents and administrators want and need to provide a safe environment for students and teachers. School personnel are permitted, like any other citizen, to request the assistance of a law enforcement deputy. Covington Schools' personnel requested assistance from the police during school hours after school administrators' efforts to de-escalate and defuse a threat to others had proven unsuccessful. Deputy Sumner responded to the call and did what he is sworn to do and in conformity with all constitutional and law enforcement standards. In this particular case, all the facts and circumstances have not yet been presented. I steadfastly stand behind Deputy Sumner who responded to the school's request for help. Deputy Sumner is a highly respected and skilled law enforcement deputy and is an asset to the community and those he serves."]

Canady said that the officer involved in the incident did not go through his organization's 40-hour, week-long training for school resource officers.

"In our training, we have a block devoted to special education," he said. "We want to make sure that officers going into the school have some good information on what to anticipate in the special education world." 

But, he added, "I want to be careful in criticizing this officer. It doesn't look good, but I don't know all the circumstances that led up to this."

In January 2014, the U.S. Department of Education released guidance to districts on how to create nondiscriminatory discipline policies. In addition to having disabilities, the 3rd grader involved in one incident is Hispanic, and the 4th grade girl named in the suit is African-American. Students with disabilities and minority students are far more likely than their typically developing and white peers to be restrained or secluded at school, according to restraint and seclusion data collected by the Education Department's office for civil rights.  

Kentucky adopted new restraint and seclusion policy in 2013

In 2013, Kentucky adopted a policy that would prohibit restraint and seclusion of any student, except in the case of imminent harm to the student or others. School resource officers are specifically included in a list of school personnel governed by the new policy, and the policy prohibits the use of restraints for punishment and to enforce compliance. 

However, the regulation also says that it "does not prohibit the lawful exercise of law enforcement duties by sworn law enforcement officers." In the lawsuit, Sumner's report of the incident is that the 3rd grade boy tried to strike him with his elbow. The 4th grade girl, referred to in the lawsuit as L.G., was also accused of assault in Sumner's report, according to the suit.

Kim Brooks Tandy, the executive director of the Children's Law Center, said the children in these cases were not restrained as a part of "law enforcement duties." 

"I don't think that provision can be used to just circumvent the whole intent of these regulations," Brooks said. "There was no reason for the restraint. I think when you put that into context, it doesn't fall into a category where law enforcement was necessary at all, much less to restrain somebody."

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