News May 29, 2019, by Wendy Gillis Torstar Network
Peel Regional Police officers who handcuffed a 6-year-old Black girl inside a Mississauga school decided to restrain her based, at least in part, on her race, a lawyer for the child’s mother argued at the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal Wednesday.
In his opening statement, Roger Love, the lawyer representing the child and her mother, said the girl never should have been handcuffed — on both her hands and her feet — inside a Peel region elementary school in September 2016.
“This girl was unarmed and experiencing a tantrum... However extreme this episode may have been, it didn’t warrant the use of physical restraints,” said Love, a lawyer with the Human Rights Legal Support Centre, told the tribunal.
“There were other options and the decision to handcuff was, at least in part, based on race.”
The woman and her child — neither of whom can be identified based on a publication ban applied Wednesday — filed an application to the province’s Human Rights Tribunal alleging police “brutalized” and used “excessive” force against the child.
The claim, filed against the Peel Regional Police Services Board, alleges discrimination based on colour and race, saying it’s an example of anti-Black racism.
At the first day of the hearing, lawyer Paula Rusak said the police board strongly disputes the allegations, which she called “reckless” and “false.” She said the written human rights claim contained “hyperbole” and “highly provocative and inflammatory words,” alleging there was no due diligence taken to ensure that what was being alleged is true.
Rusak argued the evidence will show that officers acted reasonably and that the child needed to be restrained because she was in danger of hurting herself or others around her.
“The optics are not great, but I think we all know that children sometimes can be difficult to handle, and in this particular case, the officers had no alternative but to restrain her as best they could,” Rusak said.
“At that time — it’s easy to Monday-morning quarterback — but at that time, that was the best thing to do.”
The facts as presented by in the human rights claim, she said, “are not going to be provable.”
The incident stems from a Sept. 30, 2016, incident, when police were called to Nahani Way Public School, after a teacher claimed the child had been assaulting students and staff, according to the human rights application filed by the mother.
According to the mother’s written claim, it was the third time that month that police had been called to the school because the child was misbehaving. The officer who arrived first said he found the child flanked by school officials and observed that she was “calm,” the claim states.
After a second officer arrived, the child became “agitated and started running throughout the school,” according to the officer’s notes, quoted in the application. The officers located her at the school’s gymnasium, where there was an assembly going on, and picked the 48-pound child up and carried her to the main office, according to the application.
The officers then handcuffed her wrists and ankles while she sat in a chair, then later, laid her down on her stomach and handcuffed her hands behind her back, according to the claim. The officers then called paramedics, although the claim alleges that the officers “provided no reasons in their notes that would support that decision.”
The mother was contacted at work and came to the school to pick up her daughter. She has since filed the human rights claim, launched a complaint to Ontario’s Office of the Independent Police Review Director and initiated a lawsuit against the police.
Asked by Love why she took legal action, the mother, who was called as a witness Wednesday, said she believes her daughter was only handcuffed because she is Black.
“I believe that light needed to be shone on the issue of police brutality. I believed that the parties responsible had to pay,” she said. “So that another 6-year-old girl doesn’t get shackled.”
On the stand, the mother acknowledged that her daughter had behavioural issues at school at the time. She stated her child was processing traumatic incidents in the fall of 2016, including the mother’s own recent cancer diagnosis and treatment.
She stated she was working with the school staff, including its social worker, and others to find ways to address the causes of her daughter’s behavioural issues and improve her parenting skills. She felt that she did “everything in my power to try and see what the underlying reasons were.”
In cross-examination, Rusak asked the mother about the specifics of prior violent incidents the school claimed the child was involved in, some leading to the child being suspended multiple times. Those incidents included that she bit one of the school staff members through a jean jacket, drawing blood; that she rode a bicycle into a staff member; that she threw scissors and a sharp pencil at a staff member; that she’d gone outside and started throwing rocks, and that she’d been violent with other students.
The mother claimed that when she was called to pick her child up from school, the school generally did not give specifics about her daughter’s problematic behaviour. The mother acknowledged that she knew there were behavioural concerns.
The tribunal continues Thursday.
Wendy Gillis is a Toronto-based reporter covering crime and policing.
Steve Hall's Response
There are many concerns coming out of this event.
The perception of immediate danger from a 6-year-old child surrounded by adults trained to respond to hostile and aggressive behaviours (current status quo that a low percentage of staff receive Behavioral Management Training training to get the know-how in managing these types of crises). It would also be expected that the staff would have frequent discussions and practice in managing these complex challenges, particularly based on the fact that they already know how difficult she was.
Apart from the racial allegations made by the mother, her desire to see someone pay and the erroneous description of her child being shackled, I support her plea and despair in the way this incident unravelled.
In my professional opinion, cuffing an ‘out-of-control’ 6-year-old child is using excessive force. It demonstrates that the adults lost control of the situation and of their emotions. For police to enter a gymnasium during an assembly and physically pick up this child is appalling. To later use a set of mechanical restraints made for adults (padded handcuffs for minors) and place her in a prone position is far from best practice.
My attention is also drawn on the fact that one police officer noted her calm but strongly reacted when the second officer arrived. I wonder why two separate officers would be required to respond to an out of control 6-year-old child in an elementary school.
The mother speaks of a collaborative relationship with the school and later states that she was often kept in the dark! This statement leads me to believe that tremendous efforts could have been invested in finding ways to stop the behaviours of this child. A well-adjusted trauma-informed approach would have placed an emphasis on the parent-school collaborative relationship and the importance of communicating information after an incident.
So much more can be learned from this incident! I have highlighted the actions, outcomes and perceptions throughout this document that inform readers on the contributing factors nourishing or triggering this story.
Safety Consultant delivering training to schools for 20 years