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Annie Fox, M.Ed., is an internationally respected parenting expert, award-winning author, and a trusted online adviser for tweens and teens.

“If you don’t come down by the count of 5, you will be pepper sprayed.”

December 8, 2011

Just read a headline in my morning San Francisco Chronicle. “$55,000 for pepper spraying of child.” Sounds a tad extreme. What could possibly cause a cop to use a toxic weapon on a kid?! Well, apparently, back in June 2010, a 7-year-old special education student from San Mateo (who, according to the story, has “learning difficulties, dyslexia, anxiety disorder and social-skill problems”) perched on an “unsteady” piece of classroom furniture and refused to get down. Classroom aides called the police. (Huh?!)  An officer arrived with a can of pepper spray. (You’ve gotta be prepared facing a 2nd grader.)  After warning the child that he’d be pepper sprayed if he didn’t get down by the count of five, the officer sprayed him. According to the filed complaint, the child didn’t know what pepper spray was. Guess that should now be included in the 2nd grade curriculum.

A quick search revealed that in April of this year, another elementary school student in a special education class was a pepper sprayed by police at his Denver school.

The two incidents could easily be lumped together, but they are very different.

In the Denver case, the child behaved violently, throwing furniture, wielding a broken piece of board, cursing and threatening to “kill” his teachers. The police reportedly felt the safety of the teachers and students was threatened and they needed to subdue that 8 year old quickly.

In the San Mateo incident, apparently the child was in danger of tumbling from a bookcase and they needed to subdue that 7 year old quickly.

I wasn’t at either scene, but I’m wondering: if a police officer doesn’t have the common sense and the training to safely get a 7 or 8 year old under control, then what the hell is that officer doing on the force?

I’m also wondering if this isn’t a case of  “When all you’ve got is a can of pepper spray, then everyone looks like a dangerous suspect needing to be subdued quickly.”

Finally, I’m wondering what lessons the victims and rest of the kids in those two classrooms took home that day about police officers and teachers… adults who are supposed to care about kids and know how to take the time to listen to them, to understand and to help.



  1. Annie, while I agree that this action seems a bit extreme, let’s also look at the other perspective: why is a 7-year old so OUT OF CONTROL that there is no respect for adults or even the police? This is what we are largely teaching our kids — that respect, self-discipline, and accountability to rules is no longer required.

    Heck, the officer wasn’t the FIRST one who tried to subdue that child — but, he’s going to get the rap because he was the last and it took extreme measures to end the tantrum.

    And, my other question is this: where are the parents in this equation?

    – Corinne Gregory

    Comment by Corinne Gregory — December 8, 2011 @ 12:37 pm

  2. How about this question: if a trained police officer has to resort to pepper spray, what is an untrained teacher to do?

    Comment by Jimbo Lamb — December 8, 2011 @ 2:38 pm

  3. Annie: yes we have lost all common sense. I have personally been called to schools in our area where this was about to happen. All it took from me was a calm voice and a caring person to get my friend’s out of control special needs child out of there calmly while police looked on and shook their heads at the school for calling cops on a six year old.

    This is outrageous.

    Comment by Paula Schuck — December 8, 2011 @ 4:27 pm

  4. Oh and in answer to the other comment – the teacher should get trained – as should all the others needing to keep this child safe. If we want inclusion and we plan to support it then get with the game everyone!

    Comment by Paula Schuck — December 8, 2011 @ 4:29 pm

  5. I think a cookie would have been a better remedy, personally. Don’t want to reinforce negative behavior? Ignore him, then. That teacher needs some training rather than calling the police. Even the fire department would have made more sense.

    Comment by Swati Avasthi — December 8, 2011 @ 4:33 pm

  6. Completely outrageous. A child? Was somebody’s life in mortal danger? I’d not heard of this. Thank you for writing about it.

    Comment by Ezzy G. Languzzi — December 8, 2011 @ 4:39 pm

  7. This just sounds ridiculous (of course, I wasn’t there so I don’t have all the facts) but I would think the first course of action would be to call the parents, not the police. Also, were there other children in the class. If so, I hope the adults has the good sense to get them out of the room. Imagine the horror of seeing a classmate pepper sprayed by a policeman. I don’t know any 7 year old who knows what Pepper Spray is and unless that child WAS being violent or threatening harm to other people, that spray should never have been an option.

    Comment by Carolyn West — December 8, 2011 @ 6:57 pm

  8. I’d like to respond to Corinne (Comment #1) Thanks for weighing in, Corinne. There’s plenty of “blame” to spread around in the way this situation was mishandled. The classroom teacher who knew the student well and had no strategies or support for helping her/him manage the situation is one. The person who called the police is another. The person at the police department who deemed this worthy of “police intervention” is another. The officer who reported to the scene… etc. etc. As for the parents, I don’t place any responsibility on them in this situation. This happened during the school day. Their child is in special education class for a reason and I’m guessing those parents entrusted the educators to know how to handle upset, uncooperative students who have “issues.”

    Comment by Annie — December 8, 2011 @ 7:09 pm

  9. As the mother of a special needs child (Asperger’s) my question would be – what on earth pushed this child to the point where he was so totally un-responsive? I agree with you Annie, before this situation occurred there must have been numerous warning signals. It takes a village to raise a child and this child is being let down severely by all of those who are responsible for his care. Pepper spray? On a 7 year old?.. our world is in serious trouble.

    Comment by Sally Thibault — December 8, 2011 @ 7:25 pm

  10. My heart breaks when I consider how many tender spirits were traumatized that day.
    The child was clearly responding from an overwhelmed state, and needed a simple, empathetic response in order to calm her nervous system, allowing her to access her ability to make a better choice.
    Another thought: My understanding is that most police forces have personnel who are trained to respond appropriately in situations involving possible mental health issues, especially with children. Too bad they didn’t send someone who could respond effectively, and instead sent someone who reacted from his/her own fear.

    Comment by Beki An Sciacca — December 9, 2011 @ 4:08 pm

  11. I hear you, Beki. The police department chose unwisely when considering their response to the situation. And like you, I am concerned about the “collateral” damage. All of this was so unnecessary and so preventable.

    Comment by Annie — December 9, 2011 @ 4:15 pm

  12. Came here after reading your guest post and this was also an interesting blog. Something like this happened recently in Stockholm and the common reaction was basically that the boy deserved the brutal treatment of a security guard all though it was quite shocking.

    Comment by Expert Mom on Gifts — December 10, 2011 @ 1:09 pm

  13. All special ed. staff should be trained in crisis prevention. For example, the district where I live requires CPI (Crisis Prevention Institute) training for all licensed and non-licensed staff. While violence cannot always be prevented or averted, it should generally be possible for the teachers and support staff to keep *all* students safe. When things get out of control, as they will from time to time, then the educators have some tools, including non-violent restraints.

    As to the commenter who asks, “Where are the parents?” I respond: they do not necessarily factor into this equation. The article does not state the student’s disability; however, the child is receiving sped services, so there may be a plausible explanation for the child’s rage. Educators must be trained to handle these situations.

    Comment by Kevin — December 10, 2011 @ 4:05 pm

  14. Many schools have security and police officers on staff. Where my husband teaches there are 2 full time city officers and 4 security guards. Large urban schools. Teachers are not fully trained for extreme inclusion students. A student who has the potential to react like these children do need full time aides. It should not be left to one teacher to handle a student in need of that much individualized attention especially if she has other students with Iep that need her as well. In my observations, there are parents who view the school as being the ones responsible for the child and do not return calls. The parents may also be further away. I was lucky we lived just down he street from the school when my child got a sliver and freaked out. Not all are so lucky. I have come to believe that most of the time these extreme situations happen because of external circumstances that don’t always make it into the media.

    Comment by Mickie — December 11, 2011 @ 10:34 am

  15. How we understand difference and need matters. These situations appear to be attended to I such a wrong manner. Beneath this though is the in appropriateness of how authority attends to children with needs I also find it a tad alarming at some of the commentary offered by others. If we cannot agree that pepper spraying a child by police is wrong we are in serious danger.

    Surely other methods could have been used.

    Now consider that in each I’d these cases, the pepper spraying authority, also is issued a gun. Will shooting bullets be okay next?

    Comment by Mary Ann Reilly — December 21, 2011 @ 5:23 am

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