ACLU sues KC schools, saying bullied child, 7, was handcuffed for crying

The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri has filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of a Kansas City elementary student it says was handcuffed for crying and screaming in class in April 2014.

Kalyb Primm Wiley was 7 years old, 50 pounds and not yet 4 feet tall when he was handcuffed by a school resource officer after he cried — his yells disrupting his George Melcher Elementary School classroom — and did not comply with the teacher or officer’s commands to stop making noise, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Kansas City, alleges that Kalyb was teased frequently for a hearing impediment and had been reacting to a bullying incident in the classroom. When Officer Brandon Craddock heard his cries from the hallway, he decided to take Kalyb to Principal Anne Wallace, though the lawsuit suggests that the boy stopped making noise after Craddock entered the room and twice asked Kalyb to come with him.

It states that the boy was “frightened” by the time he finally joined Craddock in the hallway, began crying again and tried to walk away.

“Instead of stopping or employing any de-escalation techniques, Defendant Craddock twisted (Kalyb’s) arms and handcuffed ... his arms behind his back, and then led him to the front office in handcuffs,” the lawsuit states.

The suit, which ACLU attorney Tony Rothert said was based in part on Craddock’s report of the incident, stated that Craddock told Wallace that Kalyb had been “out of control in his classrom and refused to follow my directions.”

Kalyb’s father later said he was called to the office to find Kalyb sitting “quietly” in a chair with his hands still handcuffed behind his back.

The lawsuit names Kansas City Public Schools, as well as Craddock and Wallace as defendants. It accuses the district, Craddock and Wallace of violating Kalyb’s constitutional rights against unlawful seizure and excessive force guaranteed by the 4th and 14th Amendments by “unlawfully restraining” him. It also alleges the school district did not maintain policies that upheld Kalyb’s constitutional rights.

“Setting aside that he was 7-years-old and 50 pounds and no danger to anyone, it is illegal for the government to handcuff and restrain anyone without probable cause that a crime has been committed,” Rothert said.

Kansas City Public Schools spokeswoman Natalie Allen, who did not speak for the school district when the incident occured in 2014, said on Thursday afternoon that the district had not yet been served with the lawsuit and could not comment on pending litigation. She said Wallace and Craddock are not current employees of the district.

A schools spokeswoman employed in 2014 said then that handcuffing students was one of a “number of methods our staff can use,” according to the lawsuit and media reports at the time.

After the incident, Kalyb’s mother, Tomesha Primm, withdrew him from school. Rothert said distress from the incident led to Kalyb’s mother’s decision to homeschool her child for the past two years. He returned to public school this year, at the age of 10.

Primm said she was “shocked, in disbelief and still angry about the incident. She had volunteered at the school and attended George Melcher herself, she said, and was given no explanation by school officials for the use of force.

“That someone of that authority didn’t have any compassion or try to figure out what the problem was before they did what they did...I don’t understand how that was the first resort,” Primm said Thursday.

According to the ACLU, the historical use of questionable uses of restraints against students with disabilities prompted the Department of Education to require states to create policies related to the restraint and seclusion of students in 2009. Missouri statutes were updated to comply with the mandate.

Model policy endorsed by the Department of Education states that students should only be restrained or isolated in “extreme situations,” and only by trained employees. Restraints should not be used to change or manipulate behavior, the policy states. The ACLU maintains that the school district was not in compliance with all of the recommended policies.

Primm said she still doesn’t understand why her son was disciplined by a school resource officer when he had not shown aggressive or violent behavior toward others.

“It was unfortunate that he had to scream and holler but at the same time I don’t feel like a resource security officer should be in authority to deal with a child that needs to be disciplined,” Primm said. “I feel like it would be more for the teacher to intervene and say, ‘Time out.’ 

In addition to compensation and attorney’s fees, Rothert said his client is requesting that the court system require Kansas City Public Schools to develop training programs for school resource officers regarding schoolchildren’s constitutional rights. The district’s legal department did not return a call requesting clarification on what the district’s current and past policies regarding restraining students are.

Policies on the school website indicated that employees can use physical force against students to protect other people, themselves or for the “preservation of order.”

“This is going back to what has worked for years and that is treating disciplinary issues in schools as if they are disciplinary issues,” Rothert said. “Instead of treating a routine situation involving a child acting like a child like it’s a crime.”

On Thursday, as Kalyb stood before his former school with several reporters in front of him, he was asked what the community could learn from his experience.

The 10-year-old, who says he enjoyed engineering and science-related classes, looked up at the cameras shyly.

“Just don’t handcuff children,” he said quietly. “That’s it.”

Katy Bergen: 816-234-4120, @KatyBergen