The family of an elementary school student with special needs has filed a class action lawsuit against Pittsburgh Public Schools for handcuffing and physically restraining students with disabilities—especially black children—instead of providing special education services.
The child’s mother filed suit last year after her son (identified as D.C.) was physically abused, repeatedly secluded, and handcuffed by school police when he was a seven-year-old in first grade at Liberty Elementary. The class action was added in January.
The suit is based on several incidents that started when D.C. was in kindergarten and had trouble following directions and staying in his seat. It alleges that PPS failed to provide a special education evaluation even as D.C.’s behavior worsened from getting out of his seat in class to walking out of the classroom, yelling and lashing out at teachers, and throwing furniture at school.
Instead, according to the lawsuit, D.C. was repeatedly punished. In one incident, the suit alleges that teacher Nicholas Sible put his knee on D.C.’s back while pushing the six-year-old’s face into the floor to restrain him. In another, PPS called school police officers, who terrified D.C. by putting him in the back of a patrol car to drive him home, the suit says.
D.C.’s grandfather, Fela Turner, told The Appeal that D.C. didn’t exhibit those behaviors at home, so he spent two days in D.C.’s classroom. He observed a chaotic environment in which the “bad behavior” students were forced to face their desks toward the wall. All of these students, like D.C., were black boys.
A staff member told Mr. Turner that staff were required to call the police if they could not manage a child’s behavior. He called in an advocate who reported the incident with Mr. Sible to child protective services. The family then learned from CPS that Mr. Sible had another complaint against him—a teacher reported witnessing him choke D.C. in a different incident.
Two months later, after D.C. pushed staff members and destroyed school property, the school principal physically confined the child in a small room alone. When D.C. fled the room, Officer Marion Parker handcuffed the seven-year-old first grader until his mother arrived, the lawsuit says. The handcuffs were removed before D.C.’s mother saw him; she didn’t know her son had been handcuffed until he told her at home.
The lawsuit alleges that PPS called school police to discipline D.C. because of his race and disability status, and says the same type of discipline was being used for other students of color.
Five of the 25 Pennsylvania schools with the most arrests and citations in 2018-19 were Pittsburgh schools, according to Pennsylvania’s Department of Education. From 2017 to 2017, PublicSource reported that 80% of arrests and citations in Pittsburgh’s public schools were of black students, even though only about 50% of the school district student population is black. Only 11% of charges were filed against white students, who comprise about a third of the student population. Black teens in Allegheny County are also 20 times more likely to be prosecuted as adults compared to white teens, the Pittsburgh City Paper reported.
“[School administrators] are essentially skipping behavioral interventions, and going directly to law enforcement,” said Tiffany Sizemore-Thompson, a former juvenile public defender, told PublicSource. “It’s really troubling, to say the least.”
The handcuffing of seven-year-old D.C. at school is among a number of recent incidents around the country involving police mistreatment of young children. Last fall, a six-year-old girl was arrested, handcuffed, and fingerprinted after she kicked someone at her charter school in Orlando, Florida. And police in San Antonio, Texas, handcuffed a 7-year-old with autism after he had an outburst in class. A recent ProPublica Illinois analysis of more than 15,000 physical restraints in 100 Illinois school districts from August 2017 to early December 2018 found that about a quarter of the interventions began without any documented safety reason—and most of the children restrained had behavioral or intellectual disabilities. After a series of troubling incidents involving youth last year, Washington, D.C., police announced that officers are no longer allowed to handcuff children under 12 unless they present a danger to themselves or others.
Only after D.C. was handcuffed did PPS finally provide a special education evaluation. It recommended smaller classroom sizes and mental health services. D.C.’s family told the Appeal that, after an extended search, they found a safer school for D.C., but the ordeal has had lasting consequences for the entire family. “It’s been a nightmare. It’s changed our whole lives, all of our lives,” Mr. Turner said. “We have had to quit jobs and lost jobs, people stopped understanding because that’s how much they were calling [my daughter] to the school.”
Now 10, D.C. has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, in addition to ADHD. “It’s sent my daughter and I through a lot,” his grandfather said. “Every time I think of the fact that someone choked him or handcuffed him—or that he was deprived of a childhood because of this—it’s too emotional for me.”