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Video of toddler's screening at airport fuels criticism

By Mike M. Ahlers and Lizzie O'Leary, CNN
March 20, 2012 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The TSA has changed its screening procedures since 2010
  • A video showing the screening of a 3-year-old in a wheelchair has gone viral
  • The family was on a trip to Disney World

(CNN) -- A 2010 video of an airport screener patting down a 3-year-old boy in a wheelchair has become the latest Rorschach test of the public's attitude towards the TSA, pitting agency defenders against those who say the video shows the child being treated like a terrorist.

Posted on YouTube Saturday night by the child's father, the video had nearly 100,000 hits by Monday evening.

Matt Dubiel, the father of Rocco Dubiel, videotaped the incident in the spring of 2010 at Chicago's Midway International Airport. He posted the video after rediscovering it last week, saying he became enraged anew when reviewing it.

"There is another human being putting their hands on my child. That is not acceptable," he said. "If he was putting his hands on my child at McDonald's or anyplace else, we would immediately have him arrested and call the police."

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The Transportation Security Administration noted the agency has changed its procedures since 2010 and said pat downs of children 12 and younger are unlikely, although still possible, under the new protocols.

Under the new TSA policy that took effect in September, screeners can work with parents to resolve alarms at security checkpoints. Among other options, screeners can have the children go through metal detectors or body scanners multiple times or can swab their hands to test for traces of explosives.

"The new modified screening measures have greatly reduced, though not eliminated, pat downs of children," TSA spokesman Greg Soule said. "While recognizing that terrorists are willing to manipulate societal norms to evade detection, our officers continue to work with parents to ensure a respectful screening process for the entire family at the checkpoint."

Children in wheelchairs continue to present special challenges, since the metal chairs trigger alarms in metal detectors and scanners. That increases the likelihood of alternate screening methods being used, including limited pat downs, to find the small amounts of explosives experts say could bring down a plane.

Dubiel said he faults the TSA, not the individual screener, who he said tried to calm his son.

But "I think the whole exercise was intrusive and disrespectful to a human being, and a 3-year-old human being," he told CNN.

The videotape shows the screener lifting the young boy's shirt to briefly swab his back, apparently straying from normal TSA protocols. Typically, screeners would only swab a person's hands and articles of clothing or items they are carrying.

Dubiel said the screening occurred when his family was departing for a trip to Disney World.

"I tape-recorded it because I wanted to let the gentleman know that was examining my son that there was a camera on him, and anything that he was going to do, that he needed to be comfortable doing on camera. And if he wasn't, he needed to stay away from it."

Dubiel said he was told he could not stand next to his son during the search.

"I was told I couldn't comfort or hug my son. I couldn't hug him. I couldn't hold his hand," he said.

"And I tried to make the best out of it. But as I'm standing there as a parent doing this, I'm thinking about, should I do something more? Should I not?"

Dubiel said he disapproved of the pat down, but did not immediately object because he feared the consequences.

"My fear was, if I made a bigger deal out of it, then I could be detained, or we could miss our flight, or we could miss our vacation. All of these things are dancing around in my head," he said.

Dubiel said he forgot about the videotape, but stumbled upon it Saturday.

"As we watched it, I felt like I was in the moment again," he said. "I was overcome with the same emotion I felt -- anger and sadness and frustration.

"The more I thought about it, the more I thought, 'I'm going to share this,'" Dubiel said. "I wanted to share with other parents and let them see firsthand what happened."

In hindsight, he said, he regrets that he didn't stop the pat down.

"There hasn't been one instance in the United States of a 3-year-old carrying explosives onto an airplane or doing ill will to anyone," he said.

Like some other TSA controversies, this one resulted in heated commentary on the many Internet sites that featured the video.

"Totally unacceptable," wrote one YouTube commentator. "I look at the abject terror in this tiny child's eyes, and I know who caused it. I know who the terrorist is -- it's the creep in the blue shirt."

"I don't think a man can be called a creep ... for doing what his job requires him to do, especially since he could be easily fired for not following the rules," another viewer responded.

The TSA, meanwhile, said a new TSA Cares hotline now serves as a resource for passengers with disabilities, medical conditions or other circumstances or their loved ones who want to prepare for the screening process prior to flying.

TSA recommends that passengers call approximately 72 hours ahead of travel so that TSA Cares has the opportunity to coordinate checkpoint support with a TSA Customer Service Manager located at the airport when necessary.

Travelers can contact the TSA, using Talk To TSA -- a web-based tool that allows passengers to reach out to an airport customer service manager directly. They can also reach the TSA Contact Center at 1-866-289-9673 or via e-mail at TSA-ContactCenter@dhs.gov, with questions, suggestions or to file complaints.

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