Handcuffing a Five-Year Old: What’s Next, Two-Year Olds?


Most have seen the report and maybe even saw some videos about the case where the police were called to an elementary school in Florida because a five-year-old kindergarten girl was reportedly “out of control.”  The girl, who is black, was handcuffed by the police and taken away from school. It is interesting to note that the principal of the school, who called the police, is a former prison guard.  He was suspended by the school board.  What is perhaps the most amazing about this case and illustrates how punitive we have become are comments posted on various web sites. Many are downright racist, with one person showing a poster that reads “Arrest black kids before they become criminals.” Another poster reads “Stop being a pussy, beat your kids.” Both of these were posted on a college web site called “CollegeSlackers.com.”  Here’s what one college student had to say:


1) How was the kid harmed by being handcuffed? No harm, no lawsuit. 2) We handcuff kids all the time. The only thing preventing it is if they are too small to fit in the cuffs. 3) If people are out of control, they should be restrained. 4) Some departments have a policy that says you shall restrain people. 5) Even though a kick from a 5 year old probably won't injure you, it hurts. I'm not going to get kicked by some kid because her mom doesn't want her to be restrained. Sure, the video is bad PR and PC, but nothing was done wrong. I have a friend who works for St. Petersburg PD.


While on most web site discussion forums there were some who objected to such treatment, they were in the minority.  The following reflects the more typical views: “I'm sure if they didn't put the cuffs on her and simply tried to hold her still, she would have ended up with bruises on her arms/legs. Think of the cries of abuse that would generate! I think cuffing her was the best thing to do. Unruly little bitch!” There were many blaming the parents, with one stating: “This child has the behavior of one born to a mother who took drugs during pregnancy [sic]. I pity teachers today. They are helpless.” Many others said that this illustrates the lack of discipline within the school, talking nostalgic about the “good old days” when if kids got out of line the teachers were allowed to exact some punishment. One stated it this way:  “This would have NEVER happened when I was in kindergarden [sic] or growing up in grade school. Our teacher would yell at us and/or line us up in the hall and paddle us. There was nothing wrong with that. The teacher wasn't being stern enough in letting the child know ‘that was not acceptable.’ Maybe I'm just a mean old lady but I couldn't have been that teacher. I was watching the video and wanting to spank that brat myself!”

            Regardless of the outcome of this case (a lawsuit has been filed), the mere fact that the police were called and handcuffs were placed on the child, and that many people (judging from several Internet talk forums) have no problem with this kind of punishment, is illustrative of how acceptable this degree of punitiveness has become.

Fortunately such views are not representative of the majority of Americans, based upon public opinion polls, although Americans certainly have more punitive attitudes than other countries.  A poll by the World Health Organization in 2001 compared a sample of students and young adults in America and four other countries (Estonia, Finland, Romania and the Russian Federation).  The US poll was taken in Houston and Washington, DC.  Among other things, US groups were more likely than these other countries to agree with the statement “Physical punishment is necessary for children.”  Among the US sample, 27% agreed compared to only 10% from the other countries. What is most instructive about these results is not so much that we are more punitive in our attitudes than other countries (especially Europe) but that a clear majority of Americans (almost three-fourths) do not express the attitudes revealed in the above-referenced forums. There have been other surveys that show a more enlightened set of attitudes about punishing children. 

However, research on attitudes on punishment has found a strong relationship between Protestant Fundamentalism and support for corporal punishment. This is because of their belief in the literal truth of the Bible. This was based on research that concentrated on those belonging to churches in the “Bible Belt” states of Ohio, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia.  The churches were Southern Baptist, Independent Baptist, Church of God, Holiness, Nazarene, and Pentecostal churches, all of which strongly supports a literal interpretation of the Bible.  Other researchers have found that support for corporal punishment is positively correlated with degree of Christian religious devotion.  More specifically, such persons believe that God “is punitive in nature.” Such religious people also believe in the “sinful nature of humans” in addition to having a punitive approach to dealing with “sin,” both of which are correlated with support for corporal punishment. This correlation remains even when holding constant gender, race and level of education. These harsh attitudes are not generally expressed by those who adhere most closely to the New Testament. (The research referenced here was published in some of the most respected journals in the social sciences such as the American Sociological Review, the Social Science Quarterly and Journal of Family Violence.)

It is important to note that such strongly held religious beliefs tend to be concentrated in the southern states, where the homicide rates have continuously been the highest in the nation, along with the rate of incarceration and the application of the death penalty.  The importance of deeply held religious beliefs cannot be dismissed as an aberration that does not reflect upon society as a whole, since those who hold such beliefs have risen to power unprecedented in American history.  Witness the almost obsessive concern over “moral issues” such as gay marriage and evolution, not to mention the fact that the current administration is in office largely because of support from deeply religious groups. 

What happened in Florida is also a reflection of the recent development of “zero tolerance” policies, which I have written about on several occasions. It was not that long ago when our response to children who got out of hand in school (or elsewhere) was dealt with informally, without resort to the legal system.  Now, more than ever before, normal behavioral problems of childhood and adolescences (and I do mean “normal”) have become redefined as in need of a criminal justice response.  One result is an overburdened juvenile justice system that has little time to deal with more serious crimes.  This is reflected in the roughly 100% increase in referrals to juvenile courts nationwide for “simple assaults” and an over 150% increase in referrals for “disturbing the peace” in the past ten years.

About 40 years ago a criminologist warned about the “over-reach” of the criminal law into too many areas of human behavior and how horrible the consequences were likely to be.  His warning has come true. One might reasonably ask: what’s next, handcuffing 2-year-olds?