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Is it Really Appropriate to Pepper Spray a Child with Special Needs?

The San Francisco Chronicle reported on December 8, 2011 that the city of San Mateo recently paid a family $55,000 due to a police officer pepper spraying their son. The child in question was a 7 year old boy enrolled in a special-day class at George Hall Elementary. He had been receiving special education and related services due to his multiple disabilities including dyslexia, anxiety as well as social skills and learning deficits. On the day in question, the student had climbed up onto a bookshelf at school and was refusing to come down. The San Mateo police were called and the responding police officer decided to pepper-spray the 7 year old to get him to come down.

This use of force was necessary according to the officer because the student had climbed on to unsteady furniture and needed to be immediately removed. After being pepper-sprayed, the boy began to cry and came down from the cabinet. His parents thereafter removed him from George Hall Elementary. This incident bears into questioning what force is appropriate when confronting a child presenting dangerous behavioral problems.

Certainly in this matter it would have been more appropriate to grab a ladder or some other tool to help the child down without resorting to physical force. Using pepper-spray on a child without a dangerous weapon, who is not threatening harm on others, surely can be dealt with in a non-physical manner. Especially given that it was a 7-year old, even if the student had had a weapon, physical force may not have been necessary even then. There are also appropriate behavior intervention services that could have been used before the police were even called. This incident shows the poor judgment that is sometimes used by schools when dealing with special education students and how important appropriate training is in the area of behavior intervention.

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Augustin Egelsee L.L.P.
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Phone: 714-602-1498
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