FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — A federal judge says it was unreasonable for a Kentucky sheriff's deputy to handcuff two unruly elementary school students and says the county government is liable for the officer's conduct.
The lawsuit was filed by the parents of two children, an 8-year-old boy and a 9-year-old girl, identified in court documents only by their initials. In 2014, both children were handcuffed in separate incidents at separate schools after officials called for assistance from Kevin Sumner, a Kenton County Sheriff's deputy and a school resource officer.
The lawsuit and an accompanying video uploaded to YouTube by the ACLU ignited a nationwide debate about school discipline. The video, captured by a teacher, showed the boy handcuffed above his elbows and squirming in a chair with his arms behind his back while crying that he was in pain.
Both students had been hitting and kicking school officials. But U.S. District Judge William O. Bertelsman noted neither child weighed more than 56 pounds and said Sumner's handcuffing was "unreasonable and constituted excessive force as a matter of law."
"We knew this was unconstitutional behavior. Anyone who viewed the video could see it was tantamount to torture," said Claudia Center, senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union's Disability Rights Program.
While the judge ruled while the county is liable, he said the deputy is not. But the ruling is not yet final. The next step is to set a trial date to decide how much the county government has to pay. Once that trial is complete and a final order has been issued, the appeals process begins.
Both children had been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The 8-year-old boy attended regular classes at Latonia Elementary School in Covington. School officials did not know of his diagnosis at the time he was handcuffed. Officials at Covington's John G. Carlisle Elementary School knew of the 9-year-old girl's diagnosis and had a plan in place for her education, but the plan did not address behavior problems.
In the case of the boy, school officials say they decided to ask the sheriff's deputy for help because they could not stop the child from hitting and kicking despite using several restraint techniques.
The girl was handcuffed twice in one month. In one instance, school officials said she was angry because she refused to give up some toys she had brought to school that were against the rules. School officials put the girl in a "calm room," but said she continued kicking, hitting and blowing mucus. She also tried to bite a principal and an assistant principal, officials said.
Chris Nordloh, an attorney representing Kenton County, noted neither student was injured from the handcuffs. He said there are no perfect options for restraining combative students when it becomes necessary, noting school officials had tried numerous methods with no success.
"Nobody in this case disagrees that restraints are usually more effective and safer than physical force," Nordloh said.
While noting the children were combative, the judge said the students' "age and stature ... is highly relevant."
"While Sumner testified that (the child) swung his elbow towards Sumner, such can hardly be considered a serious physical threat from an unarmed, 54-pound eight-year-old child," Bertelsman wrote.