How better mental health supports could reduce reliance on police, restraining students in schools

A longtime Winnipeg teacher cautions against defunding police before better mental health supports are in place for students in crisis.

Schools face 'impossible choice' with violent students, but there are better options, says Manitoba teacher

A police car is seen at a Winnipeg school in a 2015 file photo. When students become violent, schools must choose between letting the student hurt themselves or others, restraining the student, or calling police, says educator Patrick Boyd. 'None of these are desirable options,' he says. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

A recent CBC article outlined a report that described "shocking" methods used to restrain and confine students in Manitoba schools. 

The piece included details of students being restrained with soft cuffs and isolated in rooms for hours. 

The cases in which the parents of the child were allegedly not informed are particularly concerning. As the report detailed, these incidents involved many neurologically diverse students, including those with autism spectrum disorder. 

What the report did not detail is the impossible choice that schools are often forced to make. 

As a teacher, I have witnessed students who can enter a violent state of mind and body for hours at a time. 

I have also witnessed parents who are either unable or unwilling to pick up their child from school when they are in this state. 

The problem is that schools have no middle choice between restraining or confining a child and calling the police.- Patrick Boyd

In these cases a school is left with three options.

The first is to allow the student to hurt themselves or others. The second is to confine or restrain the child. The third is to call the police. 

The first is out of the question, as no reasonable person would argue for doing nothing in these cases. Confining or restraining students are the shocking and extreme measures revealed in the report. The third option criminalizes a child who is having a mental health crisis.

None of these are desirable options. 

It is logical to ask "why is a child who is experiencing such an extreme mental health crisis even at school?" Obviously, the reasons for this will be complex and difficult to determine with certainty. 

However, I would suggest that policies of "inclusion" — without the funding and supports needed to make neurologically diverse students feel welcomed and comfortable in their schools — could be a common cause of such incidents. 

While including students with these challenges in regular classrooms has many advantages, it needs to be done correctly and with necessary supports.

Frustrated, anxious students 

Often "inclusion" is used as a way to pull funding from programs designed for neurologically diverse students, and then place those students into "mainstream" classrooms with little consideration or support for the specific student's needs. 

These students end up feeling frustrated or bored in a classroom that is not designed for them. 

They feel anxious and out of place around students who are more adept at the social and academic skills the school system values. 

Consider that these feelings are recurring, day in and day out, for a student who is unable to express how he or she feels in socially acceptable ways.

That is a recipe for the extreme behaviours that led to the extreme measures described above. 

The problem is that schools have no middle choice between restraining or confining a child and calling the police. 

The Black Lives Matter rally held in Winnipeg on Friday, June 5, had some groups calling for the defunding of Winnipeg police. Resources now used to send police to respond to crisis calls could be redirected to providing mental health supports, such as crisis responders, and better support for neurologically diverse students in schools, says Boyd. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

School staff are not restraining these children because they want them out of their hair. They are doing it because the child is a danger to themselves and others, and they do not want a person with a uniform and a gun coming into an elementary school to remove a child. 

Police generally have less training in dealing with an autistic child in crisis, compared to school staff. The difference is that police can restrain and remove the child from the school, without fear of losing their job. 

Given the recent interest in restructuring police budgets and dedicating more money to social services and crisis intervention professionals, it is worth thinking about how this might look in the context of schools. 

Fund mental health crisis responders

Resources dedicated to police to field these calls would be more effective if allocated in two ways. 

The first is to fund mental health crisis responders for schools. These individuals would be trained in how to de-escalate situations where children are experiencing extreme behaviours.

They could also have the training and the capacity to safely restrain a child if necessary. 

The second is to fund better supports for neurologically diverse students in the school. Incidents of extreme mental crises would therefore be less frequent, and the need to call for help from outside the school would also be less necessary.   

It is terrible to think of vulnerable students confined or restrained at their place of learning. 

But it is worse to think of elementary school as a child's first encounter in a lifetime of encounters with a system that treats people like criminals — all because their minds don't work the same way that ours do. 

This column is part of  CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Patrick Boyd has been teaching in a variety of settings for more than 10 years. He has a master's in education and he is presently teaching in the Manitoba public school system.