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ACLU lawsuit claims DougCo. school resource officers handcuffed child with autism for hours

Douglas County Sheriff's Office_arrest of 11-year-old boy_2019
Posted at 12:56 PM, Mar 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-09 19:53:29-05

DENVER — The ACLU of Colorado filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the Douglas County School District (DCSD), Douglas County sheriff and multiple school resource officers (SROs) after an 11-year-old with autism was handcuffed and left in a patrol car for hours in August 2019.

The 11-year-old Hispanic child became "so dysregulated that he banged his head repeatedly and sustained injuries," the lawsuit reads. Officers brought the child to a juvenile detention center. He was placed in custody until his parents posted a $25,000 bond, according to the lawsuit.

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

The ACLU is suing the district and officers for violating the boy's rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fourth Amendment.

All SROs in the DCSD are deputies with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office. The deputies had been assigned to middle schools in the county for the first time that year, and SRO costs were split between the school district and sheriff’s office.

The incident began on Aug. 29, 2019, when a classmate wrote on the boy with a marker. The interactions were captured on the SRO’s body cameras and released by the ACLU of Colorado.

The boy, who has an individualized education plan that includes his possible triggers, was upset by this and stabbed the other student with a pencil after a classroom aide didn't intervene. The cut drew blood but the other student said it didn’t hurt, the lawsuit states.

DCSD stabbing_ACLU lawsuit

The boy left the classroom voluntarily and began calming down with the school psychologist. The dean of students and principal also responded and the principal texted one of the SROs, Sidney Nicholson, who had never been an SRO before that year and was still in field training at the time.

The principal said he was worried the child may re-escalate and that he wanted to try to move the child before the SRO became involved. SRO Nicholson suggested instead to bring the boy to the SRO office. When they walked to where the boy and psychologist were, the boy was sitting quietly, according to the lawsuit.

Nicholson asked if the boy would come with him to the SRO office and the boy, who is not highly verbal, shook his head “no.”

The two SROs approached the student “in a threatening manner and aggressively handcuffed him,” according to the lawsuit, and their actions “would surely cause [the child] to become re-escalated.”

Nicholson took the student’s right arm and Lyle Peterson took his other arm. The boy cried, “Stop, you’re hurting me” and “Ow” and asked for them to stop while kicking the bottom of a table and wiggling his arms, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit also says he banged his head against the concrete wall of the school.

Nicholson is accused of grabbing the child’s head “at the nape of his neck” and holding it tightly as the child yelled, “Ow, you’re choking me! Ow!” according to the lawsuit. The SROs then “paraded the handcuffed eleven-year-old through the hallways of the school,” the lawsuit reads.

The ACLU said the SROs “erroneously interpreted” the child’s reactions as “resisting” and being “violent.”

As they neared the patrol car, the boy asked for the SROs to remove the handcuffs and Peterson replied, “We’re not taking them off,” according to the lawsuit. Nicholson then left the car and Peterson stayed with the student.

He banged his head on plexiglass and cried in the car, according to the lawsuit.

Nicholson then met with the principal and said, “I was hoping that would go a little easier,” to which the principal replied “Yeah, me too. Well, initially … he was in a pretty calm place so I was bummed it went that way,” according to the lawsuit. The principal said the student has a history of harming himself.

The lawsuit said that both SROs had seen and heard the boy banging his head on the plexiglass and window and rather than move him, they left him in the car and “and ignored the principal’s warning about [the child] inflicting self-harm in the past.”

The boy calmed down after about 25 minutes in the car, but the SROs did not remove the handcuffs.

At this point, another SRO, Daniel Coyle, became involved.

When the boy’s stepfather arrived, he asked to see the child, but the SROs refused and said he would be taken to Marvin W. Foote Youth Services Center. The SROs said the boy would be charged with assault for stabbing a student with a pencil, as well as assaulting a police officer, and possibly harassing the principal and another teacher.

“I mean this is crazy,” the stepfather said, according to the lawsuit. “This is a kid with autism and you guys are gonna press charges against him?... This is a kid with autism that’s obviously dysregulated.”

He asked that his stepson be taken to Children’s Hospital, but the SROs refused.

The student was brought to a juvenile detention center and charged with misdemeanor assault for allegedly causing injury to his classmate, two charges of misdemeanor harassment for allegedly striking school staff, as well as second degree felony assault of a peace officer and a misdemeanor of resisting arrest, according to the lawsuit. School staff did not press charges.

The charges from Douglas County were later dropped.

In total, the child had been left in a car without a parent, food or restroom break for two hours, before he was moved to another car and brought to the Marvin W. Foote Youth Services Center in Englewood.

The Foote Center didn’t evaluate the boy’s medical condition, according to the lawsuit. He was held there until that evening, when his parents posted a $25,000 bond to get him out.

The next day, the boy’s parents took him to a pediatrician because he had a headache, a 5-centimeter hematoma on his forehead and swollen wrists from the handcuffs. He was also treated in a day program at Children’s Hospital from Sept. 6-18, 2019.

ACLU of Colorado Staff Attorney Arielle Herzberg said the boy suffered physically and emotionally as a result of the SROs' actions. He has demonstrated fear, distrust and anxiety when interacting with law enforcement, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit alleges that the SROs knew the child was hurt but did not seek medical attention for him.

Today, the boy suffers from severe anxiety and PTSD, according to the ACLU of Colorado.

“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," Herzberg said. "Handcuffing kids should never be used as classroom management and making parents pay thousands of dollars in bond for their safe return is unacceptable.”

“The bodycam footage is horrifying and is something it is nothing that a child should ever experience, and a parent should ever have to watch their child go through,” said Arielle Herzberg, the staff attorney for the ACLU of Colorado.

The SROs were not disciplined in connection to this case. The sheriff’s office said its SROs are training to recognize various disorders, inlucing autism, and are trained to use de-escalation techniques.

The lawsuit alleges that the SROs have little or no training on interacting with students with disabilities.

“In (this student’s) case, the SROs demonstrated their lack of training when they approached him in a threatening manner that escalated the situation,” according to the lawsuit, adding that whatever training they do receive is “ineffective and inadequate, leaves officers with clear gaps in their knowledge of how to interact with students with disabilities.”

Hanson, the boy’s mother, said one of her child’s struggles is that he doesn’t advocate well for himself.

“Will he ever feel comfortable advocating for himself and his friends again?” she said. “Will he ever feel safe talking to a police officer again?”

Peterson, who was supervising Nicholson, commended Nicholson for his actions, saying he did an “outstanding job” handling a “highly stressful call,” according to the lawsuit. Four days after the incident, Nicholson was recommended to advance out of the training stage to solo status.

A few months after the incident, Nicholson handcuffed a 12-year-old with disabilities after the child "became escalated." Nicholson also left the 12-year-old handcuffed for hours, the lawsuit alleges.

ACLU of Colorado Cooperating Attorney Jack Robinson said experiences like these are causing trauma for both students and families.

“Children like (this child) don’t need handcuffs or criminal charges — they need compassion, and an understanding of the needs of students with disabilities,” Robinson said.

According to the lawsuit, the three SROs — Nicholson, Peterson and Coyle — did not consider alternatives to incarceration and violated the following DCSO policies:

  • Require officers to use discretion and least coercive intervention and consider alternatives to arrest when dealing with juveniles and people with mental health disorders and disabilities
  • Policies that require juveniles who are placed in custody to be transported “without delay” to juvenile assessment center
  • Policies on detainee transportation that require that officers transport detainees who become “sick or injured incidental to an arrest” to an appropriate medical facility as soon as possible or otherwise request paramedics

The lawsuit also states that the SROs did not try to get the boy medical attention even though they knew he was banging his head and his father wanted to take him to Children’s Hospital.

According to Chalkbeat Colorado, DCSD used the “highest number of restraints and seclusions on students out of any school district in Colorado, with 352 total restraints and 79 total seclusions” in the 2018-2019 school year. In that school year, 29.6% of DCSD students who were referred to law enforcement were in special education.

The plaintiffs argue that the sheriff, SROs and school district violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act and the Fourth Amendment rights of the student because of their actions toward the student in arresting him and leaving him handcuffed for an extended period of time – in part due to their “failure to adequately train and supervise” the SROs.

They are asking for compensatory and punitive damages, attorney’s costs and fees and any other relief granted by the court if it finds in their favor.

The school district said in a statement it had not yet been served with the complaint and that it does not comment on pending litigation.

"The School District has not been served with the complaint and has not yet had the opportunity to fully analyze its allegations and claims. Further, the District does not comment on active litigation and will have no comment to make outside of the court proceedings,” the district said in a statement.

Deputy Lauren Childress, a public information officer for the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, said in a statement that the office “cannot discuss information about the allegations.”

“The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office is committed to protecting the entire community, especially the students and staff who attend our schools. When we receive a call for service, especially one that involves a criminal allegation, we must respond. 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 statement said.

“We just received the lawsuit filed by the ACLU and therefore cannot discuss information about the allegations. However, we do note that the body camera video attached to the ACLU media release has been redacted and was not released by the ACLU to the media in its entirety.”

The ACLU of Colorado is asking to hear from families who have had similar experiences. Click here for details.

Denver7's Ivan Rodriguez contributed to this story.