For most kids, school is a place to learn, meet new friends and even have some fun.
But for one 11-year-old girl, a normal school day quickly turned into a traumatic and humiliating ordeal when she was arrested and handcuffed in the school’s computer lab, then escorted to a paddy van while her fellow students and teachers watched on in horror.
Police have defended their actions, saying ‘the officers concerned demonstrated a high level of empathy and concern for the girl’s welfare.’ But is it ever appropriate to arrest a child at school in front of their classmates?
Not Your Average School Day
The 11-year-old Aboriginal girl, who cannot be named, was a student at Tennant Creek Primary School in the Northern Territory. According to media reports, she was well-known to police, and was wanted in relation to a number of suspected property offences.
Police told the media that they had organised for the arrest to take place in an unoccupied computer lab in order to minimise disruption and prevent other students from witnessing the arrest. Police reportedly contacted a school assistant, who they believed to be the girl’s aunty, to sit in on the procedure – but it later transpired that the woman was not a relative of the child.
Police say that they explained what was happening to the girl, but she then became ‘increasingly uncooperative, argumentative and aggressive.’
Officers say they formed the view that the girl could become a danger to herself or others, and made the decision to handcuff her. She was then led by police to a paddy wagon, before being transferred into police custody for the rest of the day.
After being released, the humiliated and highly distressed girl ran away, prompting police to issue a public plea for assistance in locating her.
Thankfully, she was located safe and well after being missing for four days.
Did Police Overstep the Mark?
The young girl’s family have since spoken out about the way police officers treated her, with her great-grandmother calling the arrest ‘appalling,’ and confirming that no family members were contacted.
In NSW, there are provisions which dictate how police must treat children they suspect of crimes.
The starting point for arresting people in NSW without a warrant is section 99 of the Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Act 2002, which says that police are able to arrest a person without a warrant if, among other things, they suspect on reasonable grounds that the person is committing or has committed an offence, and;
The NSW Police Force Code of Practice for CRIME sets out protocols for the exercise of police powers, stating that:
‘Section 99 applies equally to children. Before arresting a child, you must be satisfied that the arrest is reasonably necessary for one or more of the reasons set out in section 99(1)(b).
And significantly, that:
You cannot arrest a child merely to get them back to a police station for the purpose of dealing with the matter under the Young Offenders Act 1997.
When you arrest a child, take all reasonable steps to notify a parent or guardian immediately.’
In addition to this, section 8 of the Children (Criminal Proceedings) Act 1987 states that criminal proceedings against children should always be commenced by the issuing of a court attendance notice.
It should be noted, however, that the section does not apply to certain serious criminal and drug offences, or if the police believe that:
- The child is unlikely to comply with a court attendance notice;
- The child is likely to commit further offences; or
- The violent behaviour of the child or the violent nature of the offence indicates that the child should not be allowed to remain at liberty.
Additionally, section 7 of the Young Offenders Act 1997 requires police to apply ‘the least restrictive form of sanction is to be applied against a child who is alleged to have committed an offence.’ It also contains a principle that ‘the over representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in the criminal justice system should be addressed by the use of youth justice conferences, cautions and warnings.’
The NSW Police Handbook requires officers to comply with the law when dealing with both kids and adults; including the legal requirement that arrest should only be exercised as a last resort.
But unfortunately, police often overlook laws and protocols when dealing with members of the public.