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Advocates sue Louisiana school officials for handcuffing child

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • Class-action lawsuit alleges 6-year-old boy was repeatedly handcuffed and shackled
  • The suit, filed Thursday, names Louisiana school officials
  • The boy's life has been changed forever, father says
  • The Louisiana Recovery School District's investigation concluded this was an isolated incident

(CNN) -- Rights advocates filed a class-action lawsuit against Louisiana school officials for repeatedly handcuffing and shackling a 6-year-old boy, attorneys for the advocates said Thursday.

A legal team representing the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana and the child's parents filed the civil-action complaint Thursday at a federal court in Louisiana. It was filed on behalf of children in the Louisiana Recovery School District, including the child, now 7 years old, who they say was handcuffed and shackled for "minor offenses."

The school district is a statewide entity administered by the Louisiana Department of Education to manage underperforming schools. Named in the lawsuit are the superintendent of the school district, Paul Vallas, along with school officials and security officers of Sarah T. Reed Elementary School.

Ken Jones, director of communications for the school district, declined to comment on the lawsuit, but said in an e-mail to CNN, "The Louisiana Recovery School District investigated the allegations involving a student at Sarah T. Reed Elementary school last semester. The RSD concluded that this was an isolated incident, the student was not arrested and the employee involved was terminated."

Thena Robinson, one of the lawyers who filed the lawsuit, said the school's punishment methods crossed the line.

"The act of forcibly restraining a young child and shackling them to a piece of furniture isn't just inhumane," she said in an e-mail. "School officials' conduct here was so unreasonable and excessively intrusive that it violates clearly established federal and state laws."

Robinson said the case was "symptomatic" of a school culture that treats students like criminals, an issue that she said contributes to Louisiana's high incarceration rate.

The lawsuit states that in May of 2010, an armed school security officer took the 6-year-old boy -- who had been involved in a shoving match with another student -- to the principal's office, where he was handcuffed and shackled to a chair.

Two days earlier, another guard had handcuffed the boy for his alleged failure to "listen and follow directions," the lawsuit says.

In the lawsuit, attorneys claim the child's parents, Sebastian and Robin Weston, said they had spoken to the school's principal, Daphyne Burnette, who had defended the school's action.

During the conversation, the lawsuit says, Burnette confirmed it was the policy of the school to handcuff "out of control" students who refuse to calm down. The Westons' child did not move when she asked him to, she said, and "if the child failed to follow the rules in the future, he would be handcuffed," the lawsuit claims.

In a written statement, Sebastian Weston said his child's life has been forever changed by the incident.

"No child should ever be treated the way our son was -- especially by the very school we entrusted with him and his education," he said.

CNN's Helena de Moura contributed to this report.