Family Sues Pittsburgh Public School For Handcuffing 7-Year-Old

In a lawsuit, the boy’s family said he was repeatedly suspended, secluded, and violently restrained before he was ever given a special education evaluation.

Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo from Getty images.

Family Sues Pittsburgh Public School For Handcuffing 7-Year-Old

In a lawsuit, the boy’s family said he was repeatedly suspended, secluded, and violently restrained before he was ever given a special education evaluation.

A Pittsburgh family says their 7-year-old boy who was acting out at school was physically abused, secluded in a room multiple times, and handcuffed by the school police.

A lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court last year alleges that the 7-year-old, referred to in court documents as D.C., was involved in a series of escalating incidents at Pittsburgh Liberty K-5 between 2015 and 2017, starting in kindergarten and continuing through first grade. His mother, Armani Turner, was called into the school repeatedly, and secured therapy outside of school for the boy, who has since been diagnosed with ADHD and oppositional defiant disorder. But at school, D.C. wasn’t given a special education evaluation that would have provided him with additional support, including an aide and sensory breaks, according to the lawsuit. 

Instead, according to the lawsuit, he was repeatedly punished. As his behaviors escalated from leaving his seat in class to walking out of the classroom, screaming and lashing out at teachers, and throwing furniture at school, D.C. was physically assaulted by staff, repeatedly suspended, and secluded in a room alone. The boy’s family also alleges that in the Pittsburgh school system, Black boys receive the harshest punishments without getting access to the supports and protections that a special education designation would provide.

On Jan. 15, attorneys for D.C. filed an amended complaint, a class action lawsuit on behalf of D.C. and students with disabilities or those who should be identified as such “who have been or will be unlawfully handcuffed or restrained by school police officers or District personnel in Pittsburgh Public Schools.”

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Five Pittsburgh schools, all high schools, were in the top 25 in Pennsylvania for arrests and citations in the 2018-19 school year, according to the state’s Department of Education. Public Source, a Pittsburgh nonprofit news outlet, reported that between the 2013-14 school year and the 2016-17 school year, 80 percent of arrests and citations in the city’s public schools were of Black youth. And in 2018, five Black students in the Pittsburgh area with emotional and behavioral issues settled a lawsuit against the Woodlawn Hills School District over abuse by staff at the Woodland Hills High School.  

Around the country, incidents involving overly harsh punishments of young children have drawn attention to school districts’ punitive approach to dealing with student behavior. In September, a school police officer in Orlando arrested two 6-year-olds and charged them with misdemeanor battery for throwing tantrums. That same month, a 7-year-old with autism was taken from his San Antonio, Texas, elementary school in handcuffs after he had an outburst during a class. A recent ProPublica Illinois analysis of more than 15,000 physical restraints in 100 Illinois school districts from August 2017 to early December 2018 found that about a quarter of the interventions began without any documented safety reason. Last month, Washington, D.C., police announced they would no longer handcuff children age 12 and under unless they present a danger to themselves or others.

“There have been several incidents that have received a lot of national attention and have indicated that officers went way too far and violated sometimes their own policies, let alone good thinking and school policies about how to treat children in these situations,” said Reece Peterson, an emeritus professor in the special education program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who has spent much of his career researching restraint and seclusion of children.

No federal laws exist around restraint and seclusion of youth, so school districts often devise their own policies. Many districts require training on how to properly restrain or isolate children, and under what conditions to do so. But there are no recognized standards for training on restraining or secluding children who aren’t an imminent threat to others, and there is premature intervention by law enforcement, actions that many experts view as unnecessary and harmful. “When the kid starts having symptoms, the educators, if they’re adequately trained, need to refer the child and get the IEP [individualized educational program] or behavior plan and begin to de-escalate and prevent the behavior from getting out of hand,” Peterson said.

In D.C.’s case, that’s not what happened, according to his family’s lawsuit. In one incident, Nicholas Sible, a substitute teacher named as a defendant in the lawsuit, restrained D.C. by putting his knee in the boy’s back. In another, D.C. was driven home from school in a police patrol car. Instead of requesting that D.C. get evaluated for special education, school officials recommended that he get on medication, according to the lawsuit. 

After an incident where D.C. had a physical altercation with a teacher and climbed on a ledge in an attempt to walk over a high stairwell, the district again called the school police. “Rather than provide D.C. with the supports he so clearly required, the District instead recommended that he be involuntarily committed to a mental health facility,” the lawsuit states. “The District also suspended D.C. for three days.”

D.C.’s grandfather, Fela Turner, told The Appeal his behavior was confusing for the family in part because he didn’t exhibit those behaviors at home. In November 2016, Turner sat in on his grandson’s class for two days and he says he observed a chaotic classroom environment. “The first grade teacher was sick and out on medical leave,” Turner said. “The class was a mess. There were 27 first-graders and it was off the chain. [There was a series of] substitute teachers that couldn’t hang and turned over every day.”

Turner also noticed that the desks of the “bad behavior” students were pulled up to and facing the wall. All of these children, like his grandson, were Black boys. While he was there, Turner said a staff member told him she was required to call the police if she could not get a child’s behavior under control. The family called in an advocate, who reported the alleged incident with Sible to ChildLine, an intake line of child protective services. The CPS worker told the advocate there was another allegation against Sible: A teacher witnessed him choking D.C. in a different incident. No one informed D.C’s family about the alleged choking incident. 

At a December 2016 meeting with D.C.’s family, according to the lawsuit, school district officials acknowledged that Sible wasn’t certified to restrain students, and the principal said no incident reports had been filed in either case involving Sible’s alleged physical assault of D.C. 

In January 2017, after D.C. pushed staff members and destroyed school property, he was placed in a small room alone, and school police were called in. While they waited for the boy’s mother to get to the school, the lawsuit claims, D.C.was handcuffed. “After she took him home, D.C. informed his mother that he had been handcuffed by Officer Parker during the incident. The District had deliberately omitted this information from discussions with A.T., and D.C. was no longer in handcuffs when she arrived at the school.”

Kristen Weidus, the Turners’ attorney, told The Appeal there is no debate about the handcuffing of D.C.—the district acknowledges that it happened—but only whether it was an appropriate use of restraint. “There are school resource officers in this school and many others who don’t necessarily have the training to restrain students,” Weidus said. “If you’re going to be in a school, you should have that training. It’s difficult for me to envision a situation where all these officers were given that training, that’s the same as someone who is working with kids with disabilities in an educational setting.” 

“There’s no mechanical restraints—including handcuffs—to be used by educators. That typically would not be viewed favorably,” Peterson, the professor, said. “Typically there’s been a distinction when a police officer or school resource officer is involved in a restraint in a school, because usually they go by the rules of the police department as opposed to the rules of the school.”

Aimee Zundel, who represents Pittsburgh Public Schools and the school police officer named in the suit, says the district has policies in place regarding disciplining students with disabilities, which specify that “the use of restraints shall be considered a measure of last resort and shall only be used after other less restrictive measures, including de-escalation techniques.” 

“This district takes those allegations very seriously, each case is looked at on an individual basis. Ongoing work goes on within the district to ensure the police officers are ready and have the knowledge they need to work with the pop they serve which is minors, juveniles,” Zundel said. Zundel added that both Sible and the principal named in the suit, Mark McClinchie, are no longer employed by Pittsburgh Public Schools. 

In his response to the lawsuit filed in May, Nicholas Sible’s attorney claims that the knee incident was accidental and that the choking incident never occurred. Attorney Brian Gabriel wrote that “any action or inaction of Defendant Sible arose from the performance of job duties and was authorized or required by law and/or in good faith reasonably believed to be authorized or required by law.” Gabriel told The Appeal that he plans to ask the judge to dismiss the plaintiff’s charge of intentional infliction of emotional distress against his client.

It was only after D.C. was handcuffed that he finally received a special education evaluation; his IEP recommended smaller classroom sizes and more mental health services. But the boy, now 10, was traumatized, his family says, and has since been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He’s now in another school and doing much better—but the family has suffered because of what D.C. experienced at the school and the extended search to find a school that was a safer place for him. “It’s been a nightmare. It’s changed our whole lives, all of our lives,” Fela Turner said. “We have had to quit jobs and lost jobs, people stopped understanding because that’s how much they were calling [my daughter] to the school.”

For the Turner family, the focus has shifted to coping with the fallout from what D.C. experienced at Liberty Elementary School and to an embrace of normalcy. D.C. is on a football team and competing in track competitions, and his mother and grandfather are trying to settle back into their jobs and lives. “It’s sent my daughter and I through a lot,” Turner said. “Every time I think of the fact that someone choked him or handcuffed him—or that he was deprived of a childhood because of this—it’s too emotional for me.”

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