Spray That Boy!

Sometimes a report from the schoolhouse needs a careful second look with questions to follow. When the report is appalling, that need is urgent. Such is an article on “restraining” students just published in The New York Times, with its report on the pepper-spraying of a first-grader and his being “involuntary committed” to a hospital by police in San Mateo, California.

The first-grader was said to have an “anxiety disorder.” I would like to know under what conditions six-year-olds with diagnosed psychiatric disorders are admitted to public schools and how their teachers are taught and helped to take care of the troubled kids they teach. I would particularly like to know how this training and help are surviving California’s axe-murder of public education.

The report said that the student “wandered away from campus.” Did he open doors or climb fences to “wander away”? Was a student with a psychiatric disorder allowed to play unsupervised in an unfenced playground, and did he “wander away” from it? Or did he “wander away” from a supervised playground? The Times said that he was “restrained” by “teachers” who returned him to school. Why did more than one teacher go out to fetch the wayward boy? Where were they when he “wandered away”? How far did he wander before he was noticed missing? Did he leave the sight of the school? The opening of the article has a series of drawings of a man being wrestled to the ground by another man, labeling it a “restraint technique.” Why did the reporter say that the teachers “restrained” the boy when they found him instead of saying that “they took him by the wrists [or however they did it] and led him back”? Did they treat him like the restrained person in the pictures?

After they “returned him to school,” he then “climbed on top of a cabinet and refused to get down.” Was this cabinet in the school’s office or in a classroom? If a classroom, why wasn’t he taken to the office? Did the same teachers who “restrained” him and returned him to school find themselves unable or unwilling to stop a six-year-old boy from climbing a cabinet or to remove him from the top once he got there? Was the top of a cabinet within his climbing distance out of the reach of the adults in the room? Did he menace them with his bared teeth or endanger them by kicks towards the face from steel-toed boots?

The teachers “called the police.” Where were the administrators? Where were they when “teachers” were out looking for the wayward child? Why didn’t they call the police, assuming that calling the police onto a school campus is an administrative decision?

When the police came, did they try to remove him from the top of the cabinet before pepper-spraying him? Were they unable to reach him? Do the police need guidelines for the use of pepper spray on six-year-olds? By saying that the police “involuntarily committed” the boy to a hospital, what does the reporter mean? Why did the police think the boy needed hospitalization? Why was he not taken there in an ambulance but “committed” there by police? Why did the hospital admit him without the parents’ approval?

The article ran this item as part of a discussion of the political difficulty of regulating “restraint techniques” used at schools. Far more urgent to me seems the need to discuss how such an incident as this one could proceed as far as it did. The politics of education are dismal these days, but something else here is more radically awry.


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