Police Handcuff 5-Year-Old After Tantrum

ByABC News

April 22, 2005 -- -- The videotaped altercation with a 5-year-old girl who was hauled off in handcuffs following an extended tantrum at her St. Petersburg, Fla., school has led to questions about whether the police overreacted.

The incident occurred March 14, and was captured on videotape because Fairmount Park Elementary School teacher Christina Ottersbach had set up a camcorder in her classroom. She wanted to record herself teaching so she could study her methods and learn how to improve, district officials told the St. Petersburg Times.

She ended up recording nearly a half-hour of video showing the girl alternately lashing out and quietly ignoring her teachers' instructions.

The footage starts in Ottersbach's classroom, where assistant principal Nicole Dibenedetto and teacher Patti Tsaousis were trying to calm the girl down and get her to clean up a mess that she had made.

Ottersbach is not in the room, having pulled her other students out of the classroom because of the girl's unseen outburst, leaving just the three.

"This is your mess to clean up. We need you to stop. You may not do this," Dibenedetto patiently but firmly told the girl, who stubbornly refused.

Eventually, the girl did start cleaning up the mess, but then she refused to leave the room. Only when Dibenedetto and Tsaousis asked her to make a choice before they counted to five did she finally leave with them.

Things evidently did not improve after that, however. The tape cuts to Dibenedetto's office, which has been trashed, apparently by the girl. She is seen ripping papers off the wall and refusing Dibenedetto's requests that she stay seated in a chair.

The girl even becomes violent at that point, taking numerous swings at Dibenedetto, who only puts her hands up to block the girl's punches.

The only other time the assistant principal touches the girl is when the child twice climbs onto a table, and the woman lifts her off and puts her back on the floor, on her feet.

Shortly after that, voices are heard saying that police have arrived. The girl sits down in the chair and remains there as three uniformed St. Petersburg police officers walk in.

"Do you remember me?" one of them asks the girl. "I'm the one who told your mom I'd put handcuffs on you."

The officers immediately pull the girl from the chair and handcuff her behind her back. The tape cuts off just seconds later, after the little girl has started screaming.

"The police officers' actions are way over the top. Three police officers having to forcibly handcuff a 5-year-old little girl? I mean, come on," said John Trevena, the family's attorney. "Is there anything more that needs to be said about that?"

He was also critical of the actions of Dibenedetto and Tsaousis, who he said could have done more to calm the girl.

"I'm concerned that the educators shadowed and hovered around the young girl," he said. "It certainly gives credence to the argument that they may have been provoking her to act out more. To me, it didn't look like a de-escalation. It looked like an escalation, an attempt to get her to act out more. I just don't understand why they didn't distance themselves back further and allow things to cool off."

No charges were filed against the girl, but Trevena promised legal action against the police department on behalf of the family.

Police would not comment on the incident, pending an internal investigation that department officials said would be completed within two weeks.

ABC News affiliate WFTS-TV in Tampa, Fla., contributed to this report.

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