8-Year-Old Girl Placed in Handcuffs Has Grim Racial Overtones


For 8-year-old Jmhya Rickman, the rest of the year is going to be rough.

She’s afraid to go back to class, and understandably so: on Tuesday, she was restrained by police and held in custody for two hours after throwing a tantrum at her elementary school in Alton, Illinois. Her uncle, Nehemiah Keeton, claims both her hands and feet were cuffed.

While Alton police stand by their decision to cuff the child, this incident has revived long-standing debates about the militarization of schools and "zero tolerance" behavior policies. At the heart of this discourse is American society’s unwillingness to address the needs of its black and Latino communities, especially with regards to children.

This is far from the first time such an incident has occurred. In Milledgeville, Georgia, 6-year-old Salecia Johnson was handcuffed by police after a school tantrum in April last year. According to her mother, she couldn’t sleep for days afterward. In 2005, a 6-year-old in Pinellas County, Florida named J'aiesha Scott was cuffed after a similar incident, then left in a police cruiser for hours while she cried. It seems clear that the psychological violence these incidents inflict on children far outweighs the temporary solutions they present.

In this case, Jmhya Rickman deals with "anxiety problems and separation anxiety." She has a history of throwing tantrums, and in every case, a relative or guardian is called to take her home. Alton Assistant Superintendent Kristi Baumgartner says, "As a last resort we sometimes have to involve law enforcement" with children, but the measure seems excessive: Rickman weighs just 70 pounds, and her uncle was allegedly on his way to pick her up anyway.

This incident is disturbing for numerous reasons. The first is that this child has significant emotional needs that aren’t being met. Without knowing details of Rickman’s home life, one can only hope that a counselor or therapist is involved in some capacity.

Secondly, that law enforcement got involved speaks to administrators’ unwillingness to actively restrain this child when tantrums occur. Despite any legal restrictions on teacher-student physical contact, as an educator, the child’s well-being should be priority number one: the psychological damage police involvement has done to Rickman and her classmates will last for years, while the solution they presented lasts for a single school day.

The third reason is explicitly racial. A pattern emerging from this and related incidents is that misbehavior in children of color is criminalized to a severe degree. There’s no logical reason to handcuff an unarmed 8-year-old. That a reaction this severe is even an option speaks to administrators giving up on managing the behavior of black children.

Luckily for them, there are solutions. The most important involves actively fighting institutions that devalue the emotional lives, and physical well-being, of people of color. This is at the root of America’s social problems, and those of the children these teachers are having such trouble with. The education system is one of many breeding grounds for this system's perpetuation. The list goes on.

One might say this is easier said than done, but all that’s preventing it from happening is an unwillingness to address these issues. Take personal responsibility for how you participate in or benefit from this system. The rest will fall into place.