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Handcuffing out-of-control child - last resort

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LUCY NICHOLSON/REUTERS

Police are required to handcuff children in school when making arrests, according to a revision in a protocol between the Toronto police department and local school boards. But police say they may also go beyond the letter of the protocol to handcuff children when they are a danger to themselves or others. That is what police say happened with a nine-year-old boy with behavioural and learning disabilities at a daycare centre this week.

Is it wise to use handcuffs on children of that age, whether disabled or not?

First, it should be clear that any policy in this regard will fall in the vast majority of cases on children with emotional or behavioural problems. Second, education policy that provides for the right of disabled children to attend mainstream programs means that children with severe disorders may pose huge challenges for schools or daycares.

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When a child loses control and begins, among other things, to throw chairs or tables, as the nine-year-old at a daycare centre run by the Learning Enrichment Foundation apparently did, what are the options? Other children must be cleared from the room. Where persuasion fails, physical restraint by school personnel with special training is one option. But it is not always practical or safe. The Learning Enrichment Foundation says its policy is not to use physical restraint. In rare situations, such as the one this week, it calls 911.

A police sergeant arrived and, finding a boy barricaded inside the room and hearing the commotion inside, called for backup. Two more officers arrived. One shouldered open the door. An officer asked the boy to lie down, and he complied. The boy (who the police were told was 12) was then handcuffed. The incident ended without physical injury.

The safety concerns should not be understated. A child out of control may hurl himself through a window. But the presence of police may have a calming effect, impressing even an out-of-control nine-year-old (or 12-year-old). If the boy lay down when asked, why did he need to be handcuffed? Wasn't the emergency over?

And why does the police-school-board protocol neglect to mention this use of handcuffs? If handcuffs are to be used for protecting children, it should be clearly spelled out in the protocol, so the community knows what to expect, and the appropriate discussions can be held beforehand.

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