Give the Kent School District credit for one thing: They said they were going to keep handcuffing students, and they have. Through February of the...

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Give the Kent School District credit for one thing: They said they were going to keep handcuffing students, and they have.

Through February of the 2004-2005 school year, 29 students have been handcuffed during the school day. Several dozen more were cuffed at after-hours events.
At this rate, the district likely will shackle more kids this year than last, when the practice made national headlines and prompted a lawsuit by the Seattle chapter of the NAACP.

Two of the students handcuffed this year were middle-schoolers. The rest are in high school. Last year, security also manacled four elementary students, including an 80-pound fifth-grader.

The handcuffings come as most districts have either banned cuffs or adopted “de-escalation” security techniques that discourage the use of any type of physical restraint.

So what in the world is going on in Kent?

District officials insist it’s nothing out of the ordinary in a modern-day school system.

Kids who break the law get cuffed in schools in Seattle and Tacoma, too. But because it’s done by police, not school security, it never gets reported as a school issue, said Margaret Whitney, Kent’s assistant superintendent.

“Everybody’s doing it, it’s just a question of who does the handcuffing,” she said.

This is partly true.

To take one example, the kid who had a gun in his truck outside Kentwood High School in January probably would have been handcuffed anywhere. And rightly so.

But school security also handcuffed a Kentlake High School student in January when he refused to remove suspected gang-related clothing — a blue bandanna — from his pocket.

“It’s ridiculous Kent is still doing this,” said retired Army Gen. Julius Johnson, who last year headed a panel that urged the schools to stop handcuffing. “Nobody else is handcuffing children over things like the dress code.”

Kent security handcuffed kids who were violent or apparently uncontrollable, but also nonviolent kids who were caught smoking pot.

In previous cases, security had tackled fleeing students and used choke holds or “pain compliance” techniques.

Not many schools try this brand of security, say school safety experts.

“Most districts have a hands-off policy — they tend not to touch students except in self-defense,” said Craig Apperson, the school safety supervisor for the state office of public instruction.

“In Kent, it’s total containment and arrest. It’s a law-enforcement model, which is not typical in our schools.”

Kent surely has a duty to keep its schools safe. Sometimes that may mean police-style tactics.

But after last year, I’d hoped they would realize what most schools already know: There are almost always better ways to keep the peace than shackling the kids.

It’s more of the same in Kent. Instead of keeping the peace, I bet that’s only going to lead to more trouble.

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.