Policy vs. practice: Handcuffing of students under review in Denver school district

The chief of safety for Denver’s public schools has vowed to review the use of handcuffs on students, as well as how district safety officers are trained to work with young children, and recommend any possible policy or procedure changes.

In a presentation to the school board Monday, neither Chief Mike Eaton nor Superintendent Susana Cordova referenced a specific incident that prompted the review. But on Friday, a Denver father said on social media that his 7-year-old son had been handcuffed at school by a Denver Public Schools campus safety officer. Chalkbeat is not naming the father because he declined an interview at this time.

School board members seemed anxious to ensure nothing like that happens again — but district policy already places significant limitations on the use of restraints. The incident raises questions about policy versus practice.

“I have an incredibly difficult time imagining any scenario where a very young person should be put in handcuffs,” said board President Anne Rowe.

Denver Public Schools has long faced criticism for over-policing students. Although the district has reduced the use of punitive practices in recent years, the black and Latino students who make up the majority of its student population are still more likely than their white peers to be referred to law enforcement. Just last week, the superintendent and school board president met with students and families who pushed them to hire “counselors, not cops.”

In addition to city police officers who are assigned to some of the district’s secondary schools, Denver Public Schools employs both unarmed and armed safety officers who do not have the authority to arrest students or write tickets. No elementary schools have campus safety officers, but some combination elementary-middle schools do.

Such officers do not carry guns, but they do carry pepper spray and handcuffs, the use of which Eaton called “a last resort.”

District policy and regulations say “mechanical restraints” are only to be used by a trained officer when a student is “openly displaying a deadly weapon” or has been referred to law enforcement for serious offenses such as robbery or sexual assault. Students under the age of 10 should not be referred to law enforcement at all, the regulations say.

On Monday, school board members asked pointed questions about the frequency with which young students are handcuffed at school.

“I’d love to see some data,” board member Jennifer Bacon said. She said police have “been called to a lot of elementary schools and there have been kids put in handcuffs,” but information about those incidents isn’t readily available.

“When will we know this has even happened?” Bacon said. “I don’t want to leave it up to social media.”

Board members also asked about the type of training safety officers receive. Eaton said it includes training in crisis intervention and verbal de-escalation. The training is not tailored by grade level, he said, but trainers explain that dealing with a 250-pound high school student is different than dealing with a 60-pound elementary student.

“We also talk with officers about, ‘Listen, how many of you are parents?’” Eaton said. “How many of you would be upset if your student came home and said, ‘I was handcuffed by my school safety officer today?’”

In addition to evaluating the district’s use of handcuffs on students, Eaton told the school board his department would take a closer look at the training given to security officers who work in combination elementary-middle schools.

Board member Happy Haynes said she is concerned training doesn’t include information about young children’s developmental needs. “They’re formulating their views about safety in the world,” she said. “School is supposed to be the safest place for them.”

Eaton also described an internal review process that occurs every time an officer uses handcuffs on a student to determine whether the use was warranted. One key question, he said, is whether the officer deployed “all strategies possible before referring to mechanical restraints.”

Neither Eaton nor Cordova commented on whether that process is being conducted in the case of the 7-year-old, noting that district staff do not publicly discuss individual cases. Nor did they discuss possible outcomes.

But Cordova said that generally, if “our actions don’t align with that vision of being a safe and welcoming environment,” district officials examine whether there needs to be changes to “policy, practice, or personnel.”

“Having a policy will not always ensure that we have the safest conditions for our students,” Cordova said. “People need to know them and they need to follow them.”