Colorado school resource officers handcuffed, jailed 11-year-old with autism for scratching classmate, lawsuit says

Douglas County school resource officers handcuffed an 11-year-old boy with autism, grabbed him by the back of the neck, left him in a patrol car for two hours where he banged his head repeatedly against plexiglass and then booked him into a juvenile jail for scratching a classmate with a pencil, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday.

The boy, who is identified by his initials A.V. in the lawsuit, sat calmly with the school counselor after the scratching, but began screaming as two Douglas County Sheriff’s Office deputies working as school resource officers picked him up by his arms and forced him into handcuffs after he indicated he didn’t want to come with them to their office, video of the 2019 incident at Sagewood Middle School shows.

The school resource officers arrested the child on suspicion of assault, harassment and resisting arrest, and the boy’s parents had to post a $25,000 bond to get the boy out of child jail, according to the lawsuit. The charges were later dropped.

“When we saw him, his forehead and arms were so swollen and bruised,” his mother Michelle Hanson said in a news release Tuesday. “A.V. doesn’t headbang. He must have been extremely dysregulated. After we bailed him out, he wouldn’t eat, wouldn’t speak. A.V. was — is — definitely traumatized. We all are.”

The lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Colorado and the Spies, Powers & Robinson law firm alleges the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office and the Douglas County School District failed to properly train the school resource officers on how to work with children with disabilities.

The sheriff’s office and the school district did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday morning.

“Across the U.S. and here in Colorado, students — particularly students of color and students with disabilities — are experiencing significant harm at the hands of SROs under the guise of school safety,” said Jack Robinson, one of the lawyers representing the child’s family. “These experiences of excessive force and implicit bias are causing students and families trauma, often for years to come, and reinforcing the school-to-prison pipeline. Children like A.V. don’t need handcuffs or criminal charges — they need compassion, and an understanding of the needs of students with disabilities.”

The incident began on Aug. 29, 2019, when the 11-year-old used a pencil to scratch another student who had been drawing on him with a marker, according to the lawsuit. The school principal and dean of students came to the classroom and asked the child to step outside, which he did. The student then sat down with the school psychologist and calmed down while listening to music, the lawsuit states.

The principal texted the school resource officers about the incident and deputies Sidney Nicholson and Lyle Peterson, soon arrived. They asked the boy to come with them.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” one of the deputies said, according to sheriff’s body-worn camera video of the incident.

When the child indicated that he did not want to come, the school resource officer said, “Well, I asked you, now I’m telling you. We’re going to go there.”

The two deputies then grabbed the child by the arms, forced him against a desk and handcuffed the boy as he screamed, the video shows. They forced the boy to walk through the hallway while telling him to relax and calm down.

The deputies left the handcuffed child in the back of the patrol car for more than two hours, during which the boy banged his head repeatedly on the plexiglass inside, according to the lawsuit. The school principal told the deputies the child had an emotional disability and had harmed himself in the past, the lawsuit states.

The boy’s stepfather arrived, but the deputies would not release the child to them, the lawsuit states. Instead, they took him to the Marvin W. Foote Youth Services Center and did not get the child medical attention. He was later evaluated by a doctor after his parents bonded him out of the jail.

Nicholson, one of the school resource officers, was still in his field training for the position at the time of the incident and was advanced out of that training four days later after his supervisor, Peterson, said he handled the situation well, according to the lawsuit.

“The Douglas County School District and sheriff’s office have a pattern and practice of their officers mishandling situations involving students with disabilities and unnecessarily ensnaring them in the criminal legal system,” said Arielle Herzberg, ACLU of Colorado staff attorney. “Handcuffing kids should never be used as classroom management and making parents pay thousands of dollars in bond for their safe return is unacceptable.”

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