Schools Are Criminalizing Children with Autism for Acting Out, But They Don’t Understand What They’re Doing Wrong

When a 10-year-old Floridan boy with autism was arrested at his school, his mother captured the horrifying incident in a video, in which viewers can hear him beg school resource officers not to touch him and also shout out, “I don’t know what’s going on, Mama! I don’t understand.”

He was being arrested because he supposedly committed a third-degree felony several months prior by kicking a paraprofessional at the school, which he allegedly did because he felt “unsafe.” After they took him away in the police car, he was detained in a juvenile facility until the next day.

Disturbing, needless to say. Yet infuriatingly, situations similar to this one—albeit ones that are less dramatic—are not uncommon occurrences in the United States today. Far too often, children with special needs are treated like criminals when they act out at school and are subjected to harsh and unnecessary punishments. Research indicates that more than 70,000 students with disabilities were restrained or secluded in just one school year, and about 25 percent of students who are placed under arrest at school have a disability. This is especially prevalent among students of color.

Adobe Stock/napatcha
Adobe Stock/napatcha

How and Why Does This Keep Happening?

The issue is a complex one. But the core of the problem seems to be that challenging behaviors among autistic students are seen as naughtiness or defiance rather than what they really are—a form of communication and/or a reaction to stress or panic. This can happen even when a child already has a behavioral plan or IEP of some sort; for whatever reason, those plans do not always get followed.

Let’s say, for example, a child on the spectrum gets overwhelmed during class—the lights are too bright, his peers are too loud…there’s just too much going on for him to handle. As a result of this stress, the child’s fight or flight mechanisms kick in, and he may get violent or try to escape. Teachers or other authorities at the school may not recognize this—they only see the behavior, which they perceive as “naughty.” Rather than working to de-escalate the situation, as they should, the teacher or authority may react by punishing the child. And that, of course, could make things even worse for a child who is already hyped up on adrenaline and panic. School resource officers may even get involved and put him under arrest.

Adobe Stock/Szasz-Fabian Erika
Adobe Stock/Szasz-Fabian Erika

Situations like this are made even more difficult thanks to the implementation of “Zero Tolerance” policies—policies that were originally implemented to keep weapons out of schools and keep everyone safer. However, some schools take this idea to the extreme and severely punish students for what seems like the smallest infractions. Though it’s unclear whether or not the situation was caused by this policy, one 10-year-old student named Seraph Jones was thrown to the ground and got a nasty rug burn on his face. The original offense that led to things escalating to that point? Hitting a computer key too aggressively.

And even for small incidents that could easily be handled by teachers, sometimes school resource officers get unnecessarily involved in the punishment process. Of course, when a child is already in overload, they may act out. School resource officers are often not equipped to handle these kinds of situations; they aren’t familiar with how to help those with disabilities, so they may react by treating the child like they would a criminal: restraint, arrest, you name it.

Even IEPs can contribute to the problem—they may place the blame on the student with autism and expect them to start “behaving better,” rather than looking critically at the environments they are in and identifying and removing possible triggers. When this is the case and triggers are ignored, the cycle is doomed to repeat.

How Can We Solve This Problem?

Adobe Stock/Diane Keys
Adobe Stock/Diane Keys

There are no easy solutions to this issue. However, there are a few steps that you as a parent can take to ensure that your child has the best outcome if a situation like this should—heaven forbid—ever arise.

One important thing to do is ensure your child has a very detailed IEP, listing all the problems they might encounter or behaviors they might engage in due to their disorder(s). If you can give proof that a behavioral incident was caused by your child’s disability, he or she will be protected from disciplinary action taken by the school. Without proof, your child could, at worst, get expelled.

The criminalization aspect is much harder. Though the IDEA protects children with disabilities from school disciplinary action, it does not apply if your child faces a criminal charge. In which case, the most practical thing you can do is learn about your child’s rights as an American citizen.

Ultimately, however, broader protection for autistic students will need to be put in place so that future situations like this do not happen. We need to educate our communities about autism and teach our law enforcement officials—especially school resource officers—about working with special needs students. We need to work to educate teachers and other school officials about autism and demand that they follow our children’s IEPs or behavioral plans.

For the sake of our kids’ wellbeing and safety, this is vital.

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