A kindergartner who threw a tantrum at her small-town Georgia school was taken away in handcuffs, her arms behind her back, in an episode that is firing up the debate over whether teachers and police around the country are overreacting all too often when dealing with disruptive students.
The family of Salecia Johnson, 6, lashed out Tuesday over her treatment and said she was badly shaken, while the school system and the police defended their handling of the episode.
Across the country, civil rights advocates and criminal justice experts say, frustrated teachers and principals are calling in the police to deal with even relatively minor disruptions.
Some juvenile authorities say they believe it is happening more often, driven by zero-tolerance policies and an increased police presence on school grounds over the past two decades because of tragedies like the Columbine High massacre in 1999. But hard numbers to back up the assertion are hard to come by.
"Kids are being arrested for being kids," said Shannon Kennedy, a civil rights attorney who is suing the Albuquerque, N.M., school district, where hundreds of kids have been arrested in the past few years for minor offenses including such things as having cellphones in class, burping, refusing to switch seats and destroying a history book. In 2010, a 14-year-old boy was arrested for inflating a condom in class.
Salecia was accused of tearing items off the walls and throwing books and toys in an outburst Friday at Creekside Elementary in Milledgeville, a city of about 18,000 some 90 miles from Atlanta, police said. Police said she also threw a small shelf that struck the principal in the leg, jumped on a paper shredder and tried to break a glass frame.
Police refused to say what set off the tantrum. The school called police, and when an officer tried to calm the child in the principal's office, she resisted, authorities said. She was handcuffed and taken away in a patrol car.
The student's behavior was "violent and disruptive," said Baldwin County Schools Superintendent Geneva Braziel. "The Milledgeville Police Department was ultimately called to assist due to safety concerns for the student, other classmates and the school staff," Braziel said in a statement.
Interim Police Chief Dray Swicord said the department's policy is to handcuff people when they are taken to the police station, regardless of their age, "for the safety of themselves as well as the officer." He said the child was restrained with steel cuffs, the only kind the department uses.
He said the girl will not be charged with a crime because she is too young.
The police chief said the girl was taken to the squad room, not a holding cell as a relative claimed and that officers there tried to calm her and gave her a soda. The girl was suspended and can't return to school until August, her mother, Constance Ruff, told WMAZ-TV.
"We would not like to see this happen to another child, because it's horrifying. It's devastating," the girl's aunt said.