A Black 9-year-old was handcuffed in his classroom, Walpole family says

A Black 9-year-old with special needs was handcuffed by Walpole police while he was having a mental health crisis in his third grade classroom, lawyers for the family allege.

The Boston group Lawyers for Civil Rights said the school went against its own policy and the boy's individualized education plan when, instead of helping the child, staff called a school resource officer. The boy has attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, post-traumatic stress and learning delays, the group said.

Attorney Erika Richmond said, "We see white children being given the benefit of the doubt and treated like children, whereas this Black child was treated like a criminal."

She said school staff often described the boy as "big for his age" or "stronger than he looks"— comments Richmond said were evidence of racial bias.

Walpole Public Schools superintendent Bridget Gough said she could not comment on the incident without parental permission. In a statement, she said, "Walpole schools are committed to the safety and education of all of our students, regardless of race or other protected characteristics."

The incident took place in January. Richmond said the boy was in his classroom when he began to have a tantrum. He was supposed to receive positive reinforcement to help regulate his behavior, but instead the school resource officer was called in. The officer then called for backup and two more officers arrived.

Lawyers said police records in the case show the boy was forcibly handcuffed. He was then restrained by his arms and legs and taken in an ambulance to a local hospital. He was kept in an adult wing, away from his mother for hours, until he was released.

Walpole Police Chief Richard M. Kelleher in an emailed letter confirmed that his department did respond to an elementary school in January "to assist staff with a student." He declined to comment further on the incident or on the actions of the officers who responded.

Richmond said the family did not want to speak publicly, in order to protect their son's privacy.

School resource officers are sworn law enforcement officers assigned to school districts. Massachusetts is no longer required to have these officers in every district, but many still do.

Data from the 2016-2017 school year show that more than 9,000 public school students were physically restrained at schools across Massachusetts. But that count of restraint includes physical holds like bear hugs, straps or belts — not necessarily handcuffing by a police officer. Students with disabilities are more likely to face restraint, federal data show.

The law says school resource officers should not use police powers to address traditional school discipline issues, including non-violent disruptive behavior. But a model memorandum of understanding between police and schools also notes that when there is a safety issue, school staff can request the resource officer, who "may act to de-escalate the immediate situation (where feasible) and to protect the physical safety of members of the school community."

The National Association of School Resource Officers' 2015 guidance says school officers should only handcuff students in arrest situations. But Mo Canady, executive director of the association, said that's not always possible.

"While these are rare circumstances, you do face the situation as an officer of: do I just remain hands-off and ... continue to let bad things happen?" he said. "Or do I figure out a way to restrain this person, at least until we can get the situation under control?"

Canady said he couldn't speak specifically about the events in Walpole. He said an outside investigation into what happened could be helpful.

Richmond, the lawyer, said the family wants to know more about what happened, and what the schools and police department will do to ensure it doesn't happen again.

"We want reforms," Richmond said. "We want an apology. We want them to take responsibility for what they did. We want to have a conversation with them."

WBUR reporter Max Larkin contributed to this report.

This article was originally published on May 04, 2023.


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Ally Jarmanning Senior Reporter
Ally is a senior reporter focused on criminal justice and police accountability.



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