Principal placed on leave during handcuff investigation

Thursday, December 16, 2004

ST. LOUIS -- The board of a St. Louis charter school placed a principal on leave Wednesday, after he had police handcuff a 5-year-old and drive the kindergartner around the block in a squad car last month to curb his unruly behavior.

Board attorney Wayne Harvey said principal Sam Morgan, who spent eight years working in the Department of Corrections, would be on leave from Thurgood Marshall Academy pending an investigation into the matter.

Morgan, longtime principal at East St. Louis High School in Illinois, declined to comment Wednesday, but last week said he had spent more time on the boy "than any kid in this building, trying to steer him straight." He was in his second year at the charter school.

He said he'd had police "put the handcuffs on one arm, put him in the back seat of their car and drive him around a little bit."

Morgan added: "This kid is heading for the Department of Corrections at five. He fights, strikes somebody practically every day on the bus. He's a constant disruption."

The boy's mother, Aroni Rucker, said Wednesday her son had trouble adjusting to his first year of school and may have been disruptive, but he did nothing to warrant such extreme measures.

"They put handcuffs on my baby," Rucker said. "That's for adults who murder and kill. He's five. He's in kindergarten.

"My baby used to get up and dressed and ready for school, but now he says, 'can I stay home? Mr. Morgan said I'm going to jail if I be bad tomorrow.' "

Rucker described Jerome as a "sweet lovable kid," who is "playful, not bad."

Rucker said she intended to pull the boy and her second-grader from the school at the end of the semester when she discovered what had happened. She said Morgan then told her the kindergartner could not come back one day last week.

Rucker said her son came home Nov. 30 complaining that his arms were hurting. When she asked why, he said he had been "locked up."

Rucker believes her son was handcuffed twice.

Morgan said he asked police officers walking through the school to help him with the boy on one occasion. They drove the boy around the block in the back of a squad car, Morgan said.

St. Louis police spokesman Richard Wilkes said the department was looking into the incident. "Handcuffing 5-year-olds is not a practice of the department," he added.

The University of Missouri-St. Louis announced in August that it would end its sponsorship of the charter school, meaning it must find a new sponsor by June or close. The university placed the school on probation twice, citing fiscal mismanagement, board corruption, poor academic performance, and high turnover in leadership -- seven principals in five years.

University spokesman Bob Samples, part of the sponsorship team, said only that "it's inappropriate to handcuff a five-year-old."

John Constantino, child psychiatrist and pediatrician, and Washington University professor, said this case illustrated how desperate schools can get trying to manage serious emotional and behavioral problems.

He said mental health screenings, like immunizations, should be required of all children entering school, adding that early intervention is key. He said there's no evidence that scaring a child straight works.

"It raises the question, who's minding the store, when a corrections person exercises his ignorance and applies his area of expertise to this domain," he said. "It's wrong."

This week, police and school district officials in Philadelphia apologized for the handcuffing and arrest of a 10-year-old girl who brought a pair of scissors to school in her backpack.

Police said they were following department regulations that suspects should be handcuffed while in transit.

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