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 say 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 come by.
"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 kids have been arrested in the past few years for minor offenses including such things 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, some 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 child was restrained with steel cuffs, the only kind the department uses.
He said the girl will not be charged with a crime because she is too young.
The girl's aunt, Candace Ruff, went with the child's mother to pick her up at the police station. She said Salecia had been in a holding cell and complained about the handcuffs. "She said they were really tight. She said they really hurt her wrists," Ruff said. "She was so shaken up when we went there to pick her up."
The police chief said the girl was taken to the squad room, not a holding cell, and officers there tried to calm her and gave her a soda.
The girl was suspended and can't return to school until August, her mother, Constance Ruff, told WMAZ-TV.
"We would not like to see this happen to another child, because it's horrifying. It's devastating," the girl's aunt said.
In Florida, the use of police in schools came up several years ago when officers arrested a kindergartner who threw a tantrum during a jelly bean-counting contest. A bill was proposed this year to restrict police from arresting youngsters for misdemeanors or other acts that do not pose serious safety threats.
In Albuquerque, Annette Montano said her 13-year-old son was arrested last year after burping in gym class.
"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.
Civil rights advocates, educators and law enforcement officials say a number of factors have led to the arrests.
Among them: 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 also result in serious criminal charges.
Albuquerque school officials have declined to comment on the arrests there. But Ellen Bernstein, president of the Albuquerque teachers union, said students' bad behavior is more extreme these days.
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," she said.
In Texas, a report by the nonprofit Texas Appleseed, a public interest group, estimates that 100,000 children are ticketed every year for misdemeanor offenses such as truancy, dress-code violations and swearing.
Texas state Sen. John Whitmire, who wants to eliminate student ticketing, said educators and police need to better distinguish between those students they are afraid of and those they are mad at.
"If you are afraid of someone because they bring a gun or drugs, of course we come down hard," Whitmire said. "It's the kids that just make you mad that you don't need to make a crime."