Written by Elizabeth K. Anthony, Arizona State University

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When police found a kindergarten boy who had walked off from school after attacking his teacher and classmates, it didn’t take them long to start guessing about the cause of his behavior.

“He’s bad because no one’s correcting it,” one of the officers who brought the boy back to school is seen saying on police body-camera footage of the incident, which took place in Silver Spring, Maryland, in 2020.

The officers asked the boy if he got spankings at home – and later told his mother she should beat him.

But when I first saw the video, I knew this case was much deeper than just one of a boy being bad or playing hooky from school. As an expert in behavioral health, child trauma and school safety, I can see from the video that the boy is likely experiencing emotional and psychological distress before the officer speaks with him. His behavior, posture and voice – hanging his head low, shoulders hunched and murmuring – indicate something is wrong.

The police seem indifferent, and when school officials get involved later on, they also don’t take steps to address what is, to me, clearly a child’s mental health emergency. To me, this is a case that typifies the uneven and heavy-handed ways that police respond to school kids in crises. These responses disproportionately lead to arrests of Black and Hispanic children.

To a trained person, a more thoughtful response to the 5-year-old’s distress would have included speaking to him in a respectful and helpful way. For example, the Pediatric Emotional Distress Reference System uses the method called “engage, calm and distract” to respond to a child in crisis. Yelling at and berating a child, particularly during a crisis, is likely to escalate the behavior and may cause long-term psychological damage.

Instead, the officers referred to the boy as a little “beast,” a “violent little thing” and a “fool” who needed to be put in a “crate.”