Should Police Have Used Pepper Spray on an 8-year-old?

Posted April 7, 2011 by

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What do you do when you’re the teacher of an 8-year-old child who is spitting, cursing, screaming and threatening to kill you?

You barricade yourself in a room and call the cops.

Colorado boy Aiden threatened his teachers with a piece of sharpened wood trim he’d torn off the wall and said that he wanted to kill them. “I wanted to make something sharp if they came out because I was so mad at them,” he said. “I wanted to whack them.” And when police arrived, he said, “Get away from me, you f—–s!”

Police had been called to the same school because of Aiden’s violent tantrums before — in fact, this was the third time they were there to handle one of his outbursts. This time, they pepper sprayed him to subdue him.

Police spokesman Steve Davis defended their actions. “Our officers had to do something in a hurry to defuse the situation before someone got hurt.”

Aiden’s mom does not agree, and said that the police should have tried talking to her son first. (On the two other occasions they were called to the school, they were able to calm Aiden down by talking with him.) On Good Morning America, Aiden’s mom said that the only time her son acts out like this is at school.

His reason for having the tantrum? “We wanted to do something and the teachers said ‘no.'” And, “I wanted to be with my mom,” he said.

He says that he gets angry and has a hard time calming himself down — that he knows what he did was wrong. I wonder what really happened in that classroom that day. Just how out of control was Aiden?  If the police were afraid that he’d get hurt if they tried to subdue him physically, was pepper spray their only other option?

What do you think? Should the police have used pepper spray on Aiden — or tried something else?

Elisabeth Wilkins is the mother of an 8-year-old boy and the Editor of Empowering Parents.


Elisabeth Wilkins was the editor of Empowering Parents and the mother of an 10-year-old son. Her work has appeared in national and international publications, including Mothering, Motherhood (Singapore), Hausfrau, The Bad Mother Chronicles, and The Japan Times. Elisabeth holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine.

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  1. Alivia Report

    Sometimes it is necessary to do whatever it takes to calm children these days. I am so sick of ppl blaming mental illness for all the actions children take. These kids need some “home training”. I have to tell parents all the time it is okay to discipline your child. They need that structure. When you discipline effectively it helps that child to think before they act the next time.

  2. eb Report

    Honestly, I believe another alternative could have been used. One writer said, “the mother should have been contacted; another writer said that the first outburst should have warrant a red flag; and also another writer said that a behavior plan should have been put in place. I can speak from experience. I have a seven year old who has been diagnose with ADHD and Insomina. For a long time I suspected something wasn’t right but I kept putting it off. No one wants to admit something is wrong. However, academically I felt that he wasn’t where he needed to be. I did seek counsel for him and his older teen brother whom didn’t have these issues. I wanted to have a psychiatric eval. on him but I was told that it had to be refer by a doctor. Yes, I was dealing with these outburst at home long before he had been diagnose. I got a psychiatric eval. in Dec.2009 when my son had a tantrum in the ped. office in Nov.2009 However on a different note it took awhile for my son to get help at school. He is in second grade and I went to the school in Dec. 09 with concerns and he was diagnose in March 2010. In June of 2010 my son threw a chair at his teacher. I was upset. I tried to warrant the school he had this behavior. I’m hurt because the teacher was hurt. After this incident he was found eligible for special services. It took until 2011 to get this(my) child what is called a behavior aide. This has made things much better. When I go to the school now on a average I get from the faculty and staff he is doing so much better now. I say thank you but I have been advocating for my child. He now has made Honor Roll, in a special class and again he has a behavior aide. I also wanted to note that I’m a supportive parent who has shown myself supportive for the school and for my children.

  3. otismom Report

    It is a sad comment on our parenting – or lack of – that public schools have to call police for assistance on some matters. A fellow elementary teacher tried to take the scissors away from a seven year-old child who was brandishing them as a weapon at other children in the classroom, and the parents brought a lawsuit against her. What disgusts me more than the poor parenting and judgment shown by this incident is the fact that it received national attention, being broadcasted on one of the morning television shows. More and more, children and teens who commit similar acts are being rewarded for their bad behavior by being the guests on national television, and it isn’t so that the interviewer can tell these out-of-control kids that they were wrong.

  4. wadnilmom Report

    I am a mother of three (13, 10, and 8) as well as a veteran teacher of 12 years–if the student is threatening in ANY way, we are trained to call for help. I agree with the previous posts that this child should have been completely and fully evaluated after the First incident. I also question what the Mother is doing at home when she says ‘he never behaves like this at home’–is HE in charge at home, or are the parents? If the first, the parents need some serious help and parenting training!

  5. old school parent Report

    As a medic, I was called to a house. Child out of control. The parent did not kmow what to do. It is easy to say the police should have not sprayed him. It looks like it worked and no other children were hurt.
    Protect the other children and teachers. Maybe the parent should have to come to class each day keep her own child in check or take him home to teach him herself.
    If my dad had been called to school for something I had done wrong, it would never have happened again. Of course, he knew how to teach us respect and discipline.
    Parents need to be part of the solution. When she pointed her finger at the police, 3 fingers pointed back at her.

  6. Camille Report

    Regarding the statement “Any school who resorts to calling in law enforcement to deal with a behavior or discipline problem is sending a loud message to the community: “WE ARE NOT CAPABLE OF HANDLING THIS.” The situation described here is not just a discipline problem or a behavior problem. Threatening to kill people and brandishing a piece of sharp wood trim that one rips off the wall is a crime! The child had the motivation, the will, and the means to carry out the threat. Police are just the ones who need to be called when a crime is in progress. The community should be glad that they have administrators in their schools who are not afraid to make the right call.

  7. Marlene Report

    The kid was threatening people verbally and with a pointy stick (a weapon!) I am a teacher and if this kid were in my classroom, I would want to do whatever I could to protect my students and myself. Pepper spray does no permanent harm and I see nothing wrong with using it in this situation. It protected the rest of the kids, the teacher, and possibly the kid himself from the rough handling needed to subdue an out-of-control kid, which could possibly cause harm.

  8. seabaughs Report

    Pepper Spray burns like hell, but is still harmless. Mom’s reaction that the child should have been “talked” to, clearly hasn’t worked for her either. The child will likely rethink provoking the police in the future. Talking and negotiating with the child smells of Political Correctness to me.

  9. parenting advice Report

    Well it is better then putting your hand on the child, he was out of control and teachers can not touch them.. what else could they do?

  10. Darah Zeledon Report

    I don’t know this child. And ultimately, we must trust that the people in charge, collaboratively, thought through their decisions. Who are we, post-incident, to question their judgment? We weren’t there. No two children are alike. I have seen 60 lb 8 year-olds and 120 lb ones. And surprisingly, enraged, even the 60 lb child is capable of causing significant damage. (You’ve heard the story of the 100lb woman, in a rush of adrenaline, who is capable of lifting her vehicle to save her trapped child?)In the end, this child needs serious help, and so does his mother.

  11. Dr. Jim Report

    Anyone who feels qualified to critize every split-second decision a law enforcement officer has to make ought to spend a day in their shoes. Conversely, any officer who continually second-guesses every decision probably should be doing something else for a living.

    The bigger question has already been addressed in the comments: Should the police have been called at all? I can’t believe that a youngster this extreme in repeated behaviors hadn’t been identified as having special needs. (And if not, why not?) An FBA (Functional Behavioral Assessment)would provide valuable information about the boy and his behavior, information that would help with a plan for circumstances just like this one. In fact, that’s exactly what they call it, a Behavior Improvement Plan.

    In my experiences, youngsters who escalate to the point of threatening to kill people do so because they don’t want anyone close to them in that state. They themselves feel threatened, so they play the very last card they have. (And yes, “I’m going to KILL you!” is considered a terroristic threat.) In other words, they’re terrified. In an instant, what we do or don’t do can make a tremendous difference. Just giving them a bit of space and time would help a lot.

    There’s another issue here. Any school who resorts to calling in law enforcement to deal with a behavior or discipline problem is sending a loud message to the community: “WE ARE NOT CAPABLE OF HANDLING THIS.”

    Sometimes that message is valid; a crisis calls for it. But it is a message a school would not want to make a habit of sending.

  12. mommaeugene Report

    The problem is many schools even the so called special schools really do not know how to handle children with extreme behaviors, so they get tossed around from program to program.It is really needs to be training done with schools staff and the community at large with linkage of services so that everyone is on the same page. a lot of times things don’t have to go that far if the adults would recognize when and where the children have the problem and not going there with them. Most adults want to insist on there position not recognizing you are dealing with mental health issues alot of the time.

  13. Lola Report

    The mother should have been called to speak with the child. The police being a figure of authority might have caused more stress on the child. Under any circumstances that pepper spray should [not] be used on a child.

  14. PJsMom Report

    I think after the first time the police were called, something should be done about the child’s behavior.

    It sounds like the mom is making excuses for bad behavior, and ‘poor little Aiden’ isn’t ever going to learn consequences.

  15. lexibank Report

    This makes me sick. I am a mother of 2 sons with bipolar disorder (as well as other challenges) my oldest son can become very aggressive and if the adults dealing with him are not trained, he could potentially become extremely aggressive. They should have been able to use very well know techingues to talk a kid or adult down. All they have done is further traumatize this child and his family. This is only going to make it that much harder for this child to trust adults so he can learn the skills/help he so desparetly needs.

  16. terepin60 Report

    No eight year old child should be pepper sprayed. I refuse to believe there wasn’t one cop big enough to restrain this child. I’ve seen a 5’6″ woman subdue a tantruming child by herself. Not to say that the child doesn’t need some serious help with his situation. But pepper spray??? I think NOT!

  17. Lunch aide Report

    I have seen this happening in schools here to.It The teachers are powerless because they can not touch the kids. I had one kid throwing chairs and hitting children. This was a first grader doing this.
    called down to the office. Someone came up and all we could do was block the exit and wait for the principal. This is sad to see.

  18. jmj1096 Report

    As a former Police Dispatcher I can see the situation warranting pepper spray. I have had calls where kids were so out of control their parents were calling 911 after locking themselves int eh bathroom. This was most likly the best way to get the job done. Police officers don’t normally go to work thinking, How can I hurt a kid today. The question to be asked here is, has the mother sought help for her child? That’s what should be on everyone’s mind, why is this the third time the police have had to intercede? The first incident should have been enough of a red flag. There is something seriously wrong with a child who threatens to hurt his teachers at such a young age. I could say so much more but it would be too inflammatory for most I am sure.

  19. Marsha Report

    I have an 8 year old, and she can rage! However, there are things I can do to defuse the rage and not get us both locked into it because of my own frustration and anger.

    These were teachers though and police officers. I wonder what his mom did about the situation? If he only did this at school, and in my limited experience, the average 8 year old doesn’t flip out to that degree, what was going on at school? How much did his mother try to address it? get counselors involved? work with the teachers? work with the boy on his problem solving and delayed gratification skills?

    I suppose if I was a frustrated teacher annoyed by the nth outburst by a bratty 8 year old, I’d barricade myself and call the cops. And cops, who usually deal with a segment of the population that we do not, when they see a person waving a piece of wood and threatening to bash other people, will respond to subdue.

    So it makes logical sense. But I still think there was something missing and likely on the parents’ end.



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