By Alex Dobuzinskis
(Reuters) - The Jackson, Mississippi, school district has agreed to stop shackling students to fixed objects, after it was sued for handcuffing pupils to railings and poles at a school for troubled children, officials said on Friday.
The Southern Poverty Law Center sued Jackson Public Schools in 2011 over its treatment of students at the district's Capital City Alternative School. Students at that campus have been suspended or expelled from other schools.
The center argued in its lawsuit that students at Capital City Alternative School were "handcuffed and shackled to poles" for non-criminal offenses such as violating dress code or talking back to a teacher.
U.S. District Judge Tom Lee approved a legal settlement on Friday.
Under the agreement, Jackson Public Schools will order its employees to end the practice of fixed restraints, which refers to securing a student to an immobile object with handcuffs or shackles, according to court papers.
The district will not use handcuffs on any student under 13, court papers said. In addition, handcuffs won't be used as punishment or for non-criminal conduct. The district also agreed to revise its restraint policy and document all cases in which handcuffs are used on students.
ONE STUDENT HANDCUFFED TO POLE FOR HOURS
In court papers filed last year, attorneys for the school district acknowledged that "employees passing by or through the ... area can hear children calling out and asking for the handcuffs to be loosened."
The lead plaintiff in the case was described in the suit as an unidentified eighth grade student with a history of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, asthma and seizures.
On one occasion, when he was handcuffed to a pole for hours, he was forced to call out to ask to be taken to the bathroom, the lawsuit said.
Jayne Sargent, interim superintendent of Jackson Public Schools, said in a statement that her district was "delighted" it could reach a settlement.
"The children certainly will benefit the most," said Sargent, who added that the incidents that led to the lawsuit occurred before she became interim superintendent.
Jody Owens of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Mississippi office said in a statement that the settlement is a victory for Jackson public school students.
"This handcuffing policy demonstrated a punitive school culture and a broken model of school discipline that focused on criminalizing students at the expense of educating them," Owens said.
The U.S. Department of Education warned in a report this month that restraining students can, in some cases, lead to their deaths, and that the use of restraints has not been shown to reduce students' bad behavior on campuses. The department says restraints should not be used unless a child endangers himself, herself or others.
Mississippi was listed in the report as one of several states without statutes or regulations addressing the topic of student restraints. Other states in that category included Indiana, Kansas, Alabama and Arizona.
(Additional reporting By Emily LeCoz in Tupelo, Mississippi; Editing by Stacey Joyce)