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Kindergartner handcuff case: Do we need police in schools?

The handcuff case of a Georgia kindergartner who threw a tantrum renews national debate about police in schools.

By The Associated Press / April 18, 2012

The kindrgartner handcuff case in Georgia renews the national debate about police in schools -- and whether to criminalize childish bad behavior. This undated image provided by the City of Albuquerque shows a school-aged juvenile handcuffed in Albuquerque, N,M.

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Albuquerque, N.M.

 A New Mexico teacher asked a 13-year-old girl to stop talking with her friend and move to another seat. The girl refused. The teacher called the police.

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The case is among thousands across the country fueling a long-simmering debate over when educators should bring in the police to deal with disruptive students. A 6-year-old Georgia kindergartner became the latest test case last week when she was hauled off in steel handcuffs after throwing books and toys in a school tantrum.

"Kids are being arrested for being kids," said Shannon Kennedy, a civil rights attorney who has filed a class-action lawsuit against Albuquerque's public school district and its police department on behalf of hundreds of kids arrested for minor offenses over the past few years, including having cellphones in class, destroying a history book and inflating a condom.

Civil rights advocates and criminal justice experts say frustrated teachers and principals are calling in the police too often to deal with the most minor disturbances. But other teachers say a police presence that has grown in response to zero tolerance policies of the 1990s and tragedies like the Columbine High massacre is needed to keep teachers and well-behaved students safe.

From sexual harassment in elementary and middle school to children throwing furniture, "there is more chronic and extreme disrespect, disinterest and kids who basically don't care," said Ellen Bernstein, president of the Albuquerque teacher's union.

Experts point to a number of factors that lead to the arrests: Some officers are operating without special training. School administrators are desperate to get the attention of uninvolved parents. And overwhelmed teachers are unaware that calling in the police to defuse a situation could lead to serious criminal charges.

"I have had some concern for a while that the schools have relied a little too heavily on police officers to handle disciplinary problems," said Darrel Stephens, a former Charlotte, N.C., police chief and executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association.

There is little national data to back those assertions; no numbers are tracked nationally on how often police are called in to arrest students. Whether the children are actually charged and saddled with criminal records varies by case and jurisdiction. Some youngsters are charged with felonies. Some are freed without further incident. Others receive tickets.

In Milledgeville, Ga., a city of 18,000 some 90 miles from Atlanta, Salecia Johnson was accused of tearing items off the walls and throwing books and toys in an outburst Friday at Creekside Elementary. 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.

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