Six year old girl holds onto prison bars from inside a cell

Trending in the US: Calling the Police on Disabled Kids in Kindergarten7 min read

Editor’s note: This article is a commission from the International Coalition Against Restraint and Seclusion. It was written by Patrick Magpie. To commission NeuroClastic writers to write on specific topics, click here.

Imagine being a six-year-old girl. You’re trying to navigate a world that prioritizes the needs of neurotypicals. Each day, you go to a school that fills you with anxiety and distress.

Educational professionals treat you like you’re a problem just because you’re different. Students pick on you because even at such a young age, society has already taught them to ostracize people who don’t act like them. Now imagine feeling completely overwhelmed. You can’t process the sensory stimulation around you. You can’t process your own thoughts and emotions.

Now imagine adults whose job is to keep you safe pinning you to the ground in front of your peers–then seeing cops swarming around you, handcuffs tight around your wrists as you’re taken somewhere you’ve never been before.

Imagine spending days in an institution away from your parents, injected with powerful drugs, away from the sanctity of your routine. You have no idea what you did wrong or why you’re being treated like a criminal for existing.

The scenario seems extreme, but for a lot of families, it’s a scary reality. While some neurodivergent children have positive experiences in school, many deal with bigotry, discrimination, and ignorance. Every month, scores of autistic and other disabled children are being taken from their school by police.

In Denver, Cecilia, a six year old who has PTSD and ODD, experienced a scene out of a nightmare when a bully provoked her into a meltdown. The bus driver called the police on her and not the boy who kicked her and had previously choked her. On Cecilia. Adults pinned her to the bus floor and prevented her mother from getting on the bus to comfort her. Police cars filled the block and surrounded the bus. To arrest a six-year girl with PTSD.

In Florida, police arrested Nadia, a neurodivergent first-grader, for having a meltdown at school. They took her away from her elementary school and locked her in a mental health facility—all without her parent’s consent. Police body camera footage reveals a compliant, calm little girl asking if she is going to jail.

Police in Florida detained another six-year-old girl, Kaia. They restrained her with zip ties and forced her into a police car. The condescending police officer brags about his history of arresting children, seemingly indifferent to the fear and desperation pouring out of the student’s eyes.

In Pennsylvania, Valley Forge Elementary school called the police on kindergartener Maggie Gaines, a six-year-old girl with Down’s Syndrome, after she pointed a finger at a teacher in the shape of a gun. School shootings are a major problem, and I support efforts to combat the prevalence of school shootings in the U.S.

But, perhaps, actually addressing issues like bullying, mental health stigma, and gun control would do more good than traumatizing a child who had no intention or means of bringing a gun to school?

But this problem is bigger than the school system or any specific age group. There are plenty of examples of teenage students who experience similarly unjust treatment, as well as traumatic encounters between police officers and neurodivergent children that happened outside of a school setting.

In Pompano Beach, Florida, a school resource officer at Cross Creek School slammed a fifteen-year-old girl to the floor and put his hands around her throat. She had her hands in her pocket at the time. There is no excuse for a grown man to choke a teenager, especially not one tasked with the responsibility to serve and protect.

In Tucson, Arizona, a deputy tackled Emmanuel, a Black fifteen-year-old boy with no arms or legs, held him down, and told him “I’ll raise my voice to you whenever the fuck I want, do you understand?”

Fourteen-year-old Matthew was restrained by police and paraded out of his school in handcuffs in front of the entire student body. This occurred just one day after Matthew’s mother won a lawsuit against the school for abuse against Matthew.

They had the option of escorting Matthew out the side door by his classroom. Instead, they put him on display and walked him through the whole school for the student body to see him in cuffs.  The whole situation is beyond fucked up. The child shouldn’t have been restrained in the first place. The school humiliated an autistic child out of pure spite.

When Police Aren’t Called

When no one calls the police, the result can be even more devastating. At least calling the police provides a degree of accountability in having outside eyes on a situation. Such was the case for Max Benson.

Last year, Max Benson died after staff at his school in El Dorado Hills held him in restraints for almost two hours, as his teacher and the school nurse watched him go into cardiac arrest. They left him unconscious for twenty-five minutes before they bothered to call 9−1−1. They murdered him.

This is Max Benson, and the world was better with him in it.

Consequences

Even though children in the United States are entitled to a free and appropriate education, it is not free for children with disabilities. Sometimes they pay in the form of abuse from teachers, sometimes from bullying from staff like bus drivers and educational aids, from administrators who look the other way when bullying happens, from police who arrest or restrain them for having emotional reactions, and sometimes they pay with their lives– as in the case of Max Benson.

Kimberly Wohlwend, the teacher who murdered Max Benson, was still teaching special education a year after she killed Max. Kimberly Wohlwend, along with principal Staranne Myers and executive director Cindy Keller, who had the audacity to plead not guilty in a manslaughter charge. They are banking on the fact that children with disabilities are viewed as expendable.

If you can’t act professionally, if you can’t protect the people who need protection, if you can’t have empathy for children who have experienced immense trauma in their life, if you see a child’s disability as an inconvenient burden, then you’re in the wrong line of work.

None of this should be normal, but it is.

Why Does this Happen

Few police officers and education professionals have the proper training to deal with meltdowns and other scenarios involving children with diverse needs. In the world of high-stakes testing, sensory, academic, and emotional accommodations are overlooked as too much pressure is placed on students to perform on standardized tests.

But children aren’t standardized, and they shouldn’t be.

Every day, families deal with a legal system that doesn’t understand the needs of people in our community.

Children with disabilities deal with a society that doesn’t understand or empathize with the challenges that neurodivergent children face.  They deal with bigoted teachers and arrest-happy cops. They deal with other parents who encourage their children to bully and mock those who don’t fit their debauched ideal of “normal.” The issue is even worse for children who contend with other types of discrimination.

In 2016, Black students made up 15% of the total student enrollment in the U.S. but accounted for 31% of students who had the police called on them by schools. Native Americans/Indigenous people, Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders, and biracial students also experienced higher rates of arrests on school property. Disenfranchised groups are also more likely to be bullied and harassed at school.

Most neurodivergent kids who end up in these horrific situations aren’t criminals. They’re kids who have struggled with trauma and abuse. Kids who are constantly forced out of their comfort zones. Kids who feel unsafe every time they leave their house. Kids who are trying to survive in a world that actively tries to hold them back.

They don’t need restraints. They need compassion and support.

They need you to hold them accountable. You can do this by putting on your Bad Guy Pants. According to Stacia Langley, Max Benson’s mother:

Bad Guy Pants™ are magical pants that you can put on when you need to be especially brave or awesome. They are perfect over big girl (boy, person) panties, unless you have sensory issues, in which case they work just as well commando.

Bad Guy Pants image reads #BadGuyPants the attire one dons when preparing to fight oppression. Bad Guy Pants are fashioned from a blend of courage, humor, moxie, fie, unadulterated joy, curiosity, honesty, and reckless abandon.

And from Max Benson himself, who also made allowances for Bad Guy Socks:

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2 Comments

  1. Hey, may I suggest a trigger warning on this one? I kind of wasn’t prepared for it to be so awful.

    I hope your advocacy makes a huge difference; it’s such an important issue. I get too overwhelmed by stuff like this. As hard as it is for me to read it, it must be a thousand times harder for all the kids who live it. I hope it can be fixed, and soon. Every child deserves to be safe.

  2. And they didn’t arrest the kid who assaulted and choked Cecilia. Speaks volumes about the fundamental corruption of the police department.

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