ACLU Files Lawsuit Against Douglas County School District, Sheriff After 11-Year-Old With Autism Handcuffed

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This article was published on CBS Denver by Jennifer McRae on March 9, 2021.

DOUGLAS COUNTY, Colo. (CBS4)– The ACLU of Colorado filed a lawsuit on Tuesday against the Douglas County School District, Douglas County Sheriff and several School Resource Officers after they handcuffed an 11-year-old Hispanic child with autism. The child was reportedly left in a patrol car for hours.

According to the ACLU, the child became so “dysregulated” that he banged his head repeatedly and sustained injuries. The officers did not seek medical attention and drove the child to a juvenile detention center and placed him in custody. He was released once his parents placed a $25,000 bond.

Dysregulation is defined by Merriam Webster as “impairment of a physiological regulatory mechanism (as that governing metabolism, immune response, or organ function).”

The ACLU is suing the school district and officers involved in the case for violating the student’s rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fourth Amendment.

“When we saw him, his forehead and arms were so swollen and bruised,” his mother Michelle Hanson said in a statement. “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 incident happened on Aug. 29, 2019 when the child, identified as A.V. was triggered by an event that happened in the classroom. A.V. has an individualized education plan (IEP) that outlines his necessary accommodations and potential triggers, like touch. According to the lawsuit, he was triggered when a student wrote on him and he reacted by poking the student with a pencil. A.V. left the classroom voluntarily and was calming down with the help of the school psychologist but then the School Resource Officers stepped in and the situation was escalated to a criminal matter.

“A.V. has suffered both physically and emotionally as a result of the SROs’ violations of his rights,” said Arielle Herzberg, ACLU of Colorado Staff Attorney in a statement. “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. 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 ACLU claims that Douglas County has a record of disproportionately putting children with disabilities and children of color into restraints and seclusion. The Douglas County School District’s own “Restraint Reports” from 2016–2019 show that in over 70% of the cases, the children had “center-based” learning needs and/or moderate needs.

The ACLU claims that the Douglas County Sheriff’s policies state that all officers are trained in recognizing mental health and related disorders, including autism, and are trained in de-escalation techniques, but that in reality, SRSs receive little or no training on interacting with students with disabilities and how to keep those students safe.

“One of A.V. struggles is he doesn’t advocate for himself very well,” Ms. Hanson said in a statement. “Will he ever feel comfortable advocating for himself and his friends again? Will he ever feel safe talking to a police officer again?”

The Douglas County School District issued this statement to CBS4: “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.”