ATLANTA — A kindergartner who threw a tantrum at her small-town Georgia school was taken away in handcuffs, her arms behind her back, in an episode that is firing up the debate over whether teachers and police around the country are overreacting all too often when dealing with disruptive students.
The family of 6-year-old Salecia Johnson lashed out Tuesday over her treatment and said she was badly shaken, while the school system and the police defended their handling of the episode.
Across the country, civil rights advocates and criminal justice experts say, frustrated teachers and principals are calling in the police to deal with even relatively minor disruptions.
Some juvenile authorities have said they believe it is happening more often, driven by zero-tolerance policies and an increased police presence on school grounds over the past two decades because of tragedies like the Columbine High massacre.
But hard numbers to back up the assertion are hard to find.
“Kids are being arrested for being kids,” said Shannon Kennedy, a civil rights attorney who is suing the Albuquerque, N.M., school district, where hundreds of students have been arrested in the past few years for such offenses as having cellphones in class, burping, refusing to switch seats and destroying a history book.
In 2010, a 14-year-old boy was arrested for inflating a condom in class.
Salecia was accused of tearing items off the walls and throwing books and toys in an outburst Friday at Creekside Elementary in Milledgeville, a city of about 18,000 about 90 miles from Atlanta, police said. Police said she also threw a small shelf that struck the principal in the leg, and jumped on a paper shredder and tried to break a glass frame.
Police refused to say what set off the tantrum. The school called police, and when an officer tried to calm the child in the principal’s office, she resisted, authorities said. She was handcuffed and taken away in a patrol car.
Baldwin County schools Superintendent Geneva Braziel called the student’s behavior “violent and disruptive. The Milledgeville police department was ultimately called to assist due to safety concerns for the student, other classmates and the school staff,” Braziel said in a statement.
Interim Police Chief Dray Swicord said the department’s policy is to handcuff people when they are taken to the police station, regardless of their age, “for the safety of themselves as well as the officer.”
He said the girl will not be charged with a crime because she is too young.