News Law and Policy

Lawsuit: Kentucky Sheriff Shackled Students With Disabilities

Jessica Mason Pieklo

A federal lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of two children accuses a Kentucky sheriff of shackling students with disabilities for misbehaving.

A deputy sheriff in Kentucky shackled two elementary school children who have disabilities for misbehaving, according to a federal lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of the children.

The children, an 8-year-old boy and a 9-year-old girl, were so small that Kenton County Deputy Sheriff Kevin Sumner locked the handcuffs around the children’s biceps and forced their hands behind their backs, the lawsuit charges. Sumner works as a school resource officer in Covington, Kentucky.

The lawsuit seeks an order requiring a change in policies by the Kenton County Sheriff’s Office, and additional training for school resource officers in dealing with young children and children with special needs. It also seeks an unspecified amount of monetary damages against Sumner.

“Shackling children is not okay,” Susan Mizner, disability counsel for the ACLU, said in a statement following the filing of the lawsuit. “It is traumatizing, and in this case it is also illegal.”

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The lawsuit also names Kenton County Sheriff Chuck Korzenborn as a defendant, alleging he failed to adequately train and supervise Sumner, who serves as an officer at several public elementary schools in Covington. The complaint further claims that the Kenton County Sheriff’s Office violated the Americans with Disabilities Act based on its treatment of the children.

“Kentucky’s school personnel are prohibited from using restraints, especially mechanical restraints, to punish children or as a way to force behavior compliance,” said Kim Tandy, executive director of the Children’s Law Center. “These regulations include school resource officers. These are not situations where law enforcement action was necessary.”

A video released by the ACLU accompanying the lawsuit shows the boy, S.R., being shackled and crying out in pain. Attorneys representing the child said that S.R. has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and a history of trauma. The girl, L.G., was twice handcuffed behind her back by her biceps, also causing her pain, the attorneys allege.

L.G. has ADHD and other special needs and the ACLU claims both children were being punished for behavior related to their disabilities. Neither was arrested nor charged with any criminal conduct.

“Using law enforcement to discipline students with disabilities only serves to traumatize children,” Mizner said. “It makes behavioral issues worse and interferes with the school’s role in developing appropriate educational and behavioral plans for them.”

Students with disabilities make up 12 percent of the national student population, but are 75 percent of the students who are physically restrained by adults in their schools, according to the U.S. Department of Education. These disciplinary practices feed into the “school-to-prison pipeline,” where children are funneled out of public schools and into the criminal justice system, advocates charge.

Students of color and students with disabilities are especially vulnerable to such push-out trends and the discriminatory application of discipline. One child in this case is Latino, and the other is Black.

“It is heartbreaking to watch my little boy suffer because of this experience,” S.R.’s mother said in a statement. “It’s hard for him to sleep, he has anxiety, and he is scared of seeing the officer in the school.”

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