Denver school board to consider limiting the use of handcuffs on young students

Following an incident in which a Denver family went public with the story of their 7-year-old son being handcuffed by a school security officer, the Denver school board is considering banning the use of handcuffs on elementary students, with the exception of fourth- and fifth-grade students in certain situations.

Handcuffs could be used on fourth- and fifth-grade students “if there is an imminent and probable threat of serious bodily injury to self or others,” according to a proposed resolution that was added last-minute to a school board meeting agenda Thursday.

The school board decided to delay voting on the resolution to give impacted families an opportunity to weigh in on what it should say. One of those families addressed the board.

“I don’t understand why there’s even handcuffs in the schools at all, particularly in elementary schools,” said Samantha Pryor, whose 7-year-old son was handcuffed last month.

She told the school board she was caught off guard by the resolution, but that her quick review found that the language was “too ambiguous.”

Her husband, Brandon Pryor, also spoke. “My grandfather was pulled out of public school in fourth grade to work in a cotton field,” he said. “He didn’t get to complete his education. My son is 7 years old. And through this traumatic experience, he hasn’t been able to go back to school for the remainder of the year. And I’m trying to think, what’s different between then and now?”

Earlier this month, the district reported that school safety officers had handcuffed students 27 times so far this school year. Last school year, handcuffs were used 31 times, the district said.

The proposed resolution says the district would amend its policy “to eliminate the use of handcuffs” on elementary school students, with a “narrow exception” for some fourth- and fifth-graders.

It also says that a designated board would review every use of handcuffs by Denver Public Schools security officers. The district’s “force review board” determines whether a use of force was reasonable or not. District policy does not currently require such a review unless there is a complaint.

The resolution would also require school security officers to undergo five additional days of training in alternative techniques such as de-escalation and the use of physical holds.

The training would also cover restorative practices, which is an approach to student misbehavior that focuses on repairing harm rather than doling out punishment, and what constitutes an “emergency” that would warrant the use of handcuffs.

Current district policy says the district is “committed to the use of restraint as a last resort to address imminent danger of serious harm to a student’s self or to other students or staff.” The resolution would not change that policy as it applies to older students.

Furthermore, the resolution would require the district’s safety department to track detailed data on the use of handcuffs and provide an annual update to the board. Currently, the safety department tracks the number of times it uses handcuffs on students, but it does not collect any information about those students, such as their age or race.

That’s an issue, in part, because it doesn’t allow the district to determine whether there are racial disparities in which students are being handcuffed. Such disparities exist elsewhere; data firmly establishes that black and Latino students, who together make up the majority of students in Denver Public Schools, are more likely than white students to be suspended or expelled.

At a school board meeting last month, the Denver Public Schools safety chief vowed to review the district’s use of handcuffs on students and recommend policy changes. Superintendent Susana Cordova said the resolution was in response all incidents of students being handcuffed, not just one.

“We will do better, and we will work toward the elimination of the use of handcuffs,” she said.