When a sobbing 11-year-old Odette Baumeister was handcuffed and removed from Rapid Valley Elementary in March, it was the 10th time the fifth-grader had been arrested, taken to a juvenile detention center or suspended this year.
According to her thick folder of disciplinary records, the arrests were usually the result of acting out by crying, throwing things, hitting herself or teachers attempting to restrain her. She once was arrested for running out of a building and splashing a teacher with water from a fountain.
At least one of those arrests resulted in the girl — who in many ways resembles a typical 11-year-old — having to spend a night in a locked cell in juvenile hall.
Her grandmother, who says she has met with school officials several times to discuss the arrests, is astounded that a child who has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder has been treated like a chronic juvenile offender.
"She should never be arrested for that. Why was she taken to jail if she was hurting herself? They should have called an ambulance," said Susanne Baumeister, who added the school district does not always contact her immediately when Odette becomes a discipline problem.
Odette, however, is far from the only child in the Rapid City Area Schools system to have an encounter with law enforcement while in school.
School policy, which provides for a full-time police presence in schools and a threat assessment protocol implemented after the Columbine High School mass shooting, has led to an environment where an emotionally disturbed girl can be arrested repeatedly for actions that would not always constitute a crime outside of school.
The policies also have prompted a study by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security of Rapid City schools and their safety program.
Odette was one of 68 student arrests during the 2012-13 school year in the Rapid City School District. Of that group, 35 were middle school students, 25 high school students and eight were elementary students.
Overall, police responded to a total of 756 school calls from May 2012 to May 2013. Police said that not all of the calls were necessarily for students. Of those calls, 67 were for assaults, 34 for emergencies, 74 for disturbances, 68 for drugs, 27 for runaways, 59 for theft and 99 were for what are termed juvenile problems, according to department records.
Rapid City Police Chief Steve Allender said that complaints of a juvenile problem at schools are often unclear initially.
"A juvenile problem is a generic classification used when no specific crime has been reported,” Allender wrote in an email to the Journal. "For example, it could be 'there are kids who look like they're up to something' or it could be a general behavior issue with the child not following instructions or not following the rules. The bottom line: it's generic."
Rapid City police officers and Pennington County sheriff’s deputies — now known as liaison officers — have been patrolling school hallways since at least 1978. The school policy states the officers are there to "prevent juvenile delinquency."
And after the Columbine High School mass shooting in 1999, the district implemented a new School Threat Assessment Response, or STAR, protocol. In student handbooks, the program is defined as an attempt to "assure that threats of violence in a school environment are addressed whenever possible, before they occur."
Troy Volesky, director of special education at Rapid City schools, said in an Individualized Education Program meeting with Baumeister in April that the school sometimes initiates threat protocol to refer Odette to law enforcement when she begins to hurt herself or throw a tantrum. The meeting was held as part of a program that is mandated by federal law for special-needs students like Odette.
Baumeister said she does not believe the policy is applied fairly to her daughter.
"They can't just manipulate the laws to do whatever they want," Baumeister said. "It's just not right."
Odette was cited for disruption of school at least five times and one of those came for crying in the hallway when she was sent out of class. Her grandmother said that every time the liaison officer was involved, it resulted in an arrest, making at least 10 this year. The school, however, only reported two arrests, one trip to the Juvenile Services Center and 10 school suspensions.
School officials defend their policy as necessary to keep schools safe and insist that police only make arrests when warranted.
"The district's position is we don’t ever arrest a student," Superintendent Tim Mitchell said when asked about the policy. "We have a liaison officer and the only time an arrest is made in school is when an offense if it happened outside of school would warrant an arrest. It's no different than in the community. We have no control over that. It’s the officer’s training and it's in their interaction where they determine whether or not to arrest."
Katie Bray is the assistant superintendent who oversees student achievement, curriculum and instruction under which disciplinary policies fall. She insists schools do not indiscriminately initiate the protocol that can lead to student arrests.
"Principals are not in the business of calling cops or a sheriff’s deputies and saying please come and arrest this kid," she said. "When an arrest is made the welfare of the child or other children has been threatened or there’s been a substantial disruption of school. Kids don’t get to just disrupt school."
Bray also said not every call leads to an arrest.
"I can tell you circumstance after circumstance where they decided not to arrest because they wanted to work with the children and the parents," she said.
She said the Department of Homeland Security's interest in studying Rapid City Area Schools is because they are one of the safest in the country and they use law enforcement extensively.
"Our liaison officers act more like counselors," Bray said. "They become like trusted adults, kids report to them. They represent safety."
Brian Blenner, who is a board member, former liaison officer and a police sergeant, said police are in schools to protect the students and sometimes that means arresting them.
"It depends on the kid," he said. "The way you figure it ... say you take 1,500 kids and out of those kids there is a small percentage of those kids that are going to cause most of your problems."
He added that STAR protocol would not be appropriate for a kid with emotional disabilities, "going off."
"That's not a kid going off," Blenner said. "That's a kid that made a direct threat, 'I'm going to kill you,' or 'I'm going to blow up the school.'"
But the constant presence of law enforcement in schools, relative ease in which discipline problems are referred to police, and an increase in student arrests nationwide has civil libertarians and parents like Baumeister concerned.
"Schools are increasingly relying on law enforcement to handle minor school misconduct instead of teachers and administrators," said Robert Doody, executive director for the American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota.
Doody pointed out that minority students and those with disabilities are more likely to be arrested. This phenomenon was recently cited in a January joint report from several civil rights organizations, including the Advancement Project, Alliance for Educational Justice and Dignity in Schools Campaign.
"Children who have unmet special learning or emotional needs are particularly likely to be pushed out of mainstream schools and into the juvenile justice system," Doody said.
Dana Hanna, a local attorney who has worked with the Baumeisters, said he doesn't see any need for a police officer to intervene at an elementary school and that arrests at such an impressionable young age can actually plant the seeds for future criminality.
"It’s called the school-to-prison pipeline and what they're doing is educating these kids to become defendants in criminal cases," Hanna said. "When children as young as 11 years old are arrested, handcuffed and put in jail for acting up, it’s just wrong."
Hanna said a decision by the Supreme Court put the responsibility for discipline on the schools rather than law enforcement.
"In Goss v. Lopez, the Supreme Court recognized and stated that discipline of students is part of education," he said. "Throughout the country, many school administrators in many schools have abdicated their responsibility as educators by putting the burden on police and the court system. It’s repressive and it’s wrong."
Odette suffers from a variety of disorders that cause her to behave much like a toddler in certain situations, according to Baumeister, who is Odette's biological grandmother but adopted her from a bad situation during childhood.
One of her more serious conditions is known as pervasive development disorder or PDD, which affects her ability to socialize and communicate. A doctor described the conditions Odette suffers from as atypical autism. Other conditions she has include opposition defiance disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and reactive attachment disorder.
As a result, she can only handle a single task at a time and is easily distracted, which was a problem when she was in a classroom with 60 other students at Rapid Valley Elementary, even though there were two teachers. She also becomes frustrated when she is unable to get help or attention from a teacher, according to Baumeister.
Baumeister said the repeated arrests and time in jail have scarred Odette who would dread going to school in the mornings.
"She trusted these teachers, and now she and her sister have learned not to trust adults," she said.
After a meeting in April, school officials decided to transfer Odette to East Middle School, a new school with classrooms dedicated to special education students. It is also a school where officials are less likely to call the police when there is a problem, according to the district.
The results are promising so far, Baumeister said.
"Oh, she is flourishing."