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Atlanta - A six-year-old who threw a tantrum at her United States school was taken away in handcuffs, firing up a debate over whether teachers and police are overreacting with disruptive students.
Salecia Johnson's family lashed out on Tuesday over her treatment and said she was badly shaken, while the school system and the police defended their handling of the incident.
Civil rights advocates and criminal justice experts say frustrated teachers and principals across the country are calling in the police to deal with even relatively minor disruptions.
Some juvenile authorities say they believe it is happening more often, driven in part by an increased police presence at schools over the past two decades because of tragedies like the Columbine school massacre. But numbers are hard to come by.
“Kids are being arrested for being kids,” said Shannon Kennedy, a civil rights attorney who is suing the Albuquerque, New Mexico, school district, where more than 200 students were arrested for minor offences last year. Those include 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 on Friday at her school in Georgia. 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.
Baldwin County schools Superintendent Geneva Braziel called the student's behaviour “violent and disruptive” and said the girl was taken away out of safety concerns for others.
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 girl will not be charged with a crime because she is too young.
The girl's aunt, Candace Ruff, went with the child's mother to pick her up at the police station. She said Salecia complained about the handcuffs. “She said they were really tight. She said they really hurt her wrists,” Ruff said. “She was so shaken up.”
The girl was suspended and can't return to school until August, her mother, Constance Ruff, told WMAZ-TV.
“I have had some concern for a while that the schools have relied a little too heavily on police officers to handle disciplinary problems,” said Darrel Stephens, a former Charlotte, North Carolina, police chief and executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association.
Some civil rights advocates, educators and law enforcement officials are concerned that officers are operating without special training, and that overwhelmed teachers are unaware that calling in the police could also result in serious criminal charges.
In Albuquerque, Annette Montano said her 13-year-old son was arrested last year after burping in gym class.
Albuquerque school officials have declined to comment on the arrests there. But Ellen Bernstein, president of the Albuquerque teachers union, said students' bad behaviour is more extreme these days.
From sexual harassment to children throwing furniture, “there is more chronic and extreme disrespect, disinterest and kids who basically don't care”, she said.
In Texas, a report by the non-profit Texas Appleseed, a public interest group, estimates that 100 000 children are ticketed every year for misdemeanour offences such as truancy, dress-code violations and swearing. - Sapa-AP