School resource officers in Douglas County, Colorado, had no business handcuffing and arresting a crying 11-year-old Hispanic boy with autism as he pleaded with them to stop and banged his head against a concrete wall, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday.
The August 2019 incident—which now adds to the bevy of documented, negative interactions between cops and disabled children nationwide—was apparently triggered by the kid poking a classmate with a pencil. His arrest was captured in body-camera footage, which has since been published by the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado.
After cops detained the sixth-grader, he was left in a patrol vehicle for more than two hours and later carted off to a juvenile detention center, until he was released on a $25,000 bond. He was accused of crimes including misdemeanor assault, misdemeanor harassment, misdemeanor resisting arrest, and second-degree felony assault of a police officer.
“Handcuffing kids should never be used as classroom management and making parents pay thousands of dollars in bond for their safe return is unacceptable,” said Arielle Herzberg, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Colorado, which filed the lawsuit along with a cooperating attorney at the firm Spies, Powers & Robinson, in a statement.
All of the charges have since been dropped, but the boy, identified only as A.V. in the lawsuit, was left with a hematoma on his forehead from banging his head during the interaction, swollen wrists from the cuffs, and a lingering sense of fear and distrust of law enforcement officers, according to the lawsuit. In a statement, his mother described him as “definitely traumatized.”
The complaint names the Douglas County School District, Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock, and three school resource officers who are jointly employed by the sheriff’s office and the school district.
On the day of A.V.’s arrest, he was in an elective class when he “experienced disability-related behavioral challenges,” according to the lawsuit. Another child wrote on his arm with a marker. A.V. poked the classmate with a pencil and left a small cut, which the child said did not hurt.
A.V. can have difficulties managing his response to frustration and expressing his emotions due to his autism and “a serious emotional disability,” according to the lawsuit, and may be triggered by touch or loud sounds.
The dean of students and principal responded to a classroom aide’s request for help after the pencil incident. A.V. was told to leave the classroom, and allegedly pushed past the administrators on his way out, though no school staff reported they were hurt. School resource officers Sidney Nicholson and Lyle Peterson arrived after the principal texted Nicholson about what happened.
A.V. was sitting in an open area of the school with a psychologist “while listening to special sensory music through his headphones,” according to the complaint, and had calmed down.
In body-camera footage, an officer can be heard telling A.V. that he wants to talk to him and that he won’t hurt him. A.V. stared blankly and occasionally shook his head in response, according to the lawsuit.
“Well, I’ve asked you, now I’m telling you,” the officer can be heard saying in the body-camera footage.
Nicholson and Peterson grabbed A.V, who cried, “Stop, you’re hurting me.”
The child asked the officers to let him go. When the cops attempted to handcuff him, he kicked the bottom of a table and banged his head against the wall.
Nicholson grabbed A.V.’s head at the nape of his neck, according to the lawsuit. As a result, the child screamed that he was being choked. The officers then walked the sobbing child out of the school and told him to stop resisting. He was put into the back of a patrol vehicle, handcuffed and screaming. Once inside, he began banging his head against the plexiglass, according to the lawsuit.
The child calmed down after about 25 minutes, but was left in the car for two hours. The boy’s stepfather arrived, was told about the charges against A.V., and asked to see him or have him taken to a children’s hospital. Neither request was granted, according to the lawsuit.
A third school resource officer, Daniel Coyle, later drove A.V. to the Marvin W. Foote Youth Services Center, a detention facility for juveniles. Once there, the child was also not evaluated for any medical condition, according to the lawsuit.
After the incident, Peterson commended Nicholson, his colleague, for his handling of the “highly stressful call,” according to the lawsuit. Nicholson was still in field training at the time of the arrest. Four days later, he was recommended to advance out of training to gain solo status.
“No SRO was disciplined due to the incident, and in fact, the SROs were rewarded for their performance or complimented each other on their performance,” the lawsuit alleges.
A spokesperson for the Douglas County Sheriff’s Offices said in a statement that it could not discuss the allegations in the lawsuit, as it had just received the complaint. The statement noted that the body-camera footage released by the ACLU was not released to the media in its entirety.
“When we receive a call for service, especially one that involves a criminal allegation, we must respond,” the sheriff’s office said in a statement. “In this particular incident, it was reported that a student had stabbed another student with a pair of scissors. It was also reported that a staff member had been assaulted.”
The Douglas County School District does not comment on active litigation outside of court proceedings, but similarly said in a statement that it hadn’t been served with the complaint.
The ways in which police interact with autistic people experiencing severe emotional distress has repeatedly come under scrutiny. Last year, for example, a police officer in Salt Lake City shot an unarmed 13-year-old boy with autism who was going through a mental health crisis at the time.
And, in another Douglas County incident, a 10-year-old with autism got into a schoolyard altercation and was criminally charged with assault and harassment in 2015, according to the lawsuit. That incident led to protests from advocates and parents who believed that children were essentially being criminalized for their autism. Charges were dismissed two years later.
What’s more, just months after A.V. was arrested, Nicholson—one of the school resource officers involved in the incident at his school—handcuffed a 12-year-old with autism and other disabilities after they were accused of spitting on a teacher. That child was also criminally charged, and had bruises on his wrists for several days, according to the ACLU’s lawsuit.