A Safety Resource Officer restrains and arrests a student with autism at Sagewood Middle School, as seen in this 2019 body cam footage still image.
A Safety Resource Officer restrains and arrests a student with autism at Sagewood Middle School, as seen in this 2019 body cam footage still image.

Even following a year filled with disturbing footage of police interactions, the video still had the capacity to shock: a young boy wailing in distress as two police officers work to handcuff his arms behind his back. Ignoring his protests, they lead him out of a classroom and into a police car as he screams that they are choking him and hurting him. 

“I’m not asking you anymore. I’m telling you what you’re doing. Do you understand?” one of the officers yells as they bundle him into the police car.

“It’s hurting me!” the boy cries.

The video was released by the ACLU of Colorado on March 9 when the organization filed a lawsuit against the Douglas County School District, Douglas County Sheriff and several school resource officers on behalf of the boy, identified as “A.V.”, and his family.

This incident and others like it have sparked further advocacy to limit minor’s interactions with the criminal justice system, including school resource officers. Legislation working its way through the state legislature has the backing of some of Colorado’s biggest criminal justice reform advocates.

According to the ACLU, A.V. is a Hispanic child with autism who at the time of the incident in 2019, was an 11-year-old student at Sagewood Middle School in Parker. After a classmate in his affective needs classroom wrote on him with a marker, he became upset and poked him with a pencil, according to the lawsuit.

A.V. voluntarily left the classroom and was calmed down by the school psychologist, according to the lawsuit. However, school resource officers (SROs) decided to intervene, handcuffed him and left him in a patrol car for “hours,” “causing him to become so dysregulated that he banged his head repeatedly and sustained injuries.”

The officers then drove him to a juvenile detention facility where he was placed in custody until his parents posted a $25,000 bond, according to the suit. The ACLU is claiming that his Fourth Amendment rights and his rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act were violated.

The ACLU is alleging that children with disabilities and children of color are disproportionately likely to be the targets of school discipline, and is filing the lawsuit to raise awareness about this pattern of behavior.

“We’re bringing this lawsuit to raise awareness for the larger issue of who the students are who are being pushed into the school-to-prison pipeline and what happens when SROs become involved in classroom management,” ACLU lawyer Arielle Herzberg told the Sentinel.

A Safety Resource Officer restrains and arrests a student with autism at Sagewood Middle School, as seen in this 2019 body cam footage still image.

Nationally, students with disabilities are three times more likely than non-disabled students to be referred to law enforcement, and Black students five times more likely than white students, she said.

“There’s also a particular threat for children of color with disabilities,” Herzberg said.

Along with A.V.’s case, the ACLU shared the story of an Overland High School student who had a similar experience with SROs.

J.J. is a 16-year-old Black boy with autism who learns at a fifth-grade level. According to his mother, Shandie, he was frequently targeted by security at Overland and at one point was ticketed for harassment after a teacher felt threatened by him.

The charges were eventually dismissed, but Shandie told the ACLU that the experiences traumatized J.J. and made him dread going to school, even to attend his sister’s sports games. He is now an online student. The ACLU learned about the incident through the family’s lawyer while the case was still ongoing.

Instead of seeing him as a student who needed help, Shandie told the ACLU that SROs saw J.J. as a threat.

“I’m worried about him ending up like Elijah McClain,” she said.

Cherry Creek School District spokesperson Abbe Smith said that this is the first the district is hearing of the incident, but that it is looking into it and invites the family to reach out.

The district put together a community task force over the summer to assess the role of SROs in schools, Smith said in an email. 

“We are committed to working in partnership to ensure that all students are treated fairly and equally,” she said.

An Aurora Police Department spokesperson said parents should reach out to police to start a dialogue if an issue with school security arises “so we can work together to build trust and a positive relationship between the student, family and police department.”

“We value and recognize the concerns raised by the concerned mother. We encourage all parents to use the resources their school districts offer in such situations,” she said.

A Safety Resource Officer restrains and arrests a student with autism at Sagewood Middle School, as seen in this 2019 body cam footage still image.

Racial justice and disability rights advocates told the Sentinel that being disciplined by law enforcement at school can have long-lasting negative effects for students.

“Once a kid is face-to-face with a police officer with a gun and badge that kid is traumatized, especially if that kid is handcuffed,” said Omar Montgomery, president of the Aurora branch of the NAACP.

Jennifer Levin, an attorney with Disability Law Colorado who focuses on students rights, said she frequently sees students with invisible disabilities get restrained by law enforcement for behaviors related to their disability.

Along with traumatizing students, being disciplined can push students into a negative mindset about themselves and make them more vulnerable to falling into the school-to-prison pipeline, Levin said.

“When you’re being handcuffed, you really do start to see yourself as ‘that kid,’” she said.

More training for school staff on de-escalation and how to work with disabled students, more school staff specifically dedicated to work with disabled students and limits on the kinds of things that SROs can get involved in are all things that advocates told the Sentinel they would like to see.

“Only in the most extreme situation should you call law enforcement in on a student who’s having behavioral issues,” Levin said.  

For Black parents and parents of color, “we want to send our kids to school and not worry about ‘Do I need to send an attorney with my kids every day?’” Montgomery said.

Montgomery is on Cherry Creek’s task force re-evaluating policing in schools. The task force is in the process of finalizing its recommendations to the district, he said, and is currently working to ensure that student’s voices are included in the decision-making process.

Following last year’s protests against racial injustice and police brutality, the Colorado Legislature passed a wide-ranging police reform bill. This year, several more bills are making their way through the legislature aimed at limiting student’s interactions with the criminal justice system.  

Advocates have the ear of local lawmakers who plan to introduce sweeping laws limiting juvenile detention, banning the use of handcuffs on elementary students, further qualifying which cops can work in schools and releasing more information about those students who land in the system for school-based offenses. 

Democratic Aurora state Sen. Janet Bucker has introduced two bills this legislative session that apply to the entire state. 

Buckner has roots in local schools. She said she’s long been concerned with school discipline practices that disproportionately target Black students. During the pandemic, she said that local schools continue to suspend Black students at higher rates than their peers of other races and ethnicities — even over virtual classes. 

“This is a really big problem,” she said. 

At the same time, she said that school districts don’t provide “a clear picture” of data highlighting which types of students are disciplined, or why a teacher might call the police on a student. In July 2020, the Sentinel found that Cherry Creek administrators tracked whether a teacher’s call to law enforcement resulted in a court summons or arrest for a student. 

Aurora Public Schools didn’t track that, but both school districts tracked the racial makeup of students handed over to cops. The information wasn’t available on a public website. 

Aurora police also failed to submit their student policing data to a statewide database, the Sentinel found. 

A Safety Resource Officer restrains and arrests a student with autism at Sagewood Middle School, as seen in this 2019 body cam footage still image.

Buckner has teamed up with state Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, another Black lawmaker focused on change. 

The duo introduced SB21-182 on March 12. The law would require a standardized dataset from each school district that would be available to the public. 

But the law would also ban the use of handcuffs on elementary school students, place more qualifications on cops who work with kids as SROs and prevent cops from ticketing kids for some school based offenses, like disorderly conduct — a subjective charge that advocates say hurts Black and Hispanic students. The Sentinel can’t verify this because the statewide dataset doesn’t separate charged students by race.

Buckner expected much of the debate at the Capitol to focus on this question of what a student should be charged for. 

She acknowledged that some actions are simply too criminal for school staff to turn a blind eye, like keeping a weapon in a school locker. But she’s not sure that cops should ticket a student for underage marijuana possession. Last year, that was the most common school-based offense that led to an arrest or a court summons. 

Buckner said she is also addressing what happens when a student is held in the juvenile detention system. 

She introduced Senate Bill 71 last month. The bill would prevent courts from requiring that youth pay cash bail to get out of juvenile jails. 

“Parents need to stop making payments to bring their kids home,” Buckner said. “We don’t want kids to sit in detention because their parents can’t afford that.”

She said that the 18th Judicial District, which covers Arapahoe and other counties, has a high rate of requiring kids’ families to post bail. A spokesperson for the Colorado Judicial Department couldn’t immediately provide information comparing cash bail between jurisdictions. He said judges considering cash bail for juveniles “ have the authority and responsibility to interpret the law and apply it to each case’s individual circumstances.” 

And the bill would also slash the number of juvenile detention beds in the Department of Human Services — which would limit how many kids can be detained at one time. She cited statistics that almost 70% of kids in Colorado are detained for non-violent offenses. 

A Safety Resource Officer restrains and arrests a student with autism at Sagewood Middle School, as seen in this 2019 body cam footage still image.

For other kids who pose a serious risk to public safety, the bill would divert them into existing diversion programs that are alternatives to detention. They might be required to undertake drug tests, therapy and treatment or check in regularly with a community supervisor. 

“If there are kids that have committed violent crimes, of course I don’t want those kids to be in the streets,” Buckner said. 

The passage of SB-71 would prevent future situations like A.V.’s, who was going to be put into a juvenile detention facility until his parents were able to post his bond, proponents say.

“They were very scared since their child is 11 and has autism that he was going to be put into the general population of the juvenile detention center,” Herzberg said. “Luckily they got him out, but not every parent would be able to post a $25,000 bond.”

A third bill, House Bill 1122, would establish a commission in the attorney general’s office for improving first responder’s interactions with people with disabilities.

Lea Anne Paskvalich, executive director of the Autism Society of Colorado, said that the bill started from community conversations about how to help law enforcement better understand people with autism, driven in part by concerns following the Elijah McClain case.

According to his mother, McClain was not on the autism spectrum. However, Paskvalich said that his behavior in his August 2019 interaction with the Aurora Police Department mimicked the worst fears of many parents of neurodiverse people.

“A lot of parents saw their highly sensitive and possibly autistic children in Elijah McClain,” she said. “He just looked totally overwhelmed in trying to get out of the situation.”

“Often law enforcement misperceive the traits of autism as a sign of criminal activity or a threat,” Paskvalich told the Sentinel in an email. “Autistic individuals often have challenges with language processing speed, sensory overload and difficulty interpreting facial expressions and body language. Failure to comply with an officer’s request may be a manifestation of their disability.”

Advocates reached out to Rep. Meg Froelich, D-Englewood, last summer, who introduced the bill this session. Republican Rep. Colin Larson and Democratic Sen. Chris Kolker are also sponsors.

The 10-person commission would consist of people with disabilities and their families, disability advocates, law enforcement and two people from the peace officer standards and training board. The commission would recommend a training curriculum to the board that it would then be required to implement by July 22. 

“We feel like this is a good first step to helping law enforcement better understand people with autism and other neurodiversities,” Paskvalich said.

3 replies on “INVISIBLE JUSTICE: State lawmakers look to prevent children with ‘invisible’ disabilities from being channeled into the justice system”

  1. There is no concern shown here for the safety and education of the other children in classes that are disrupted by children who have invisible disabilities. There is no explanation of who is physically going to remove a child who has torn up the classroom and threatened the teacher. Teachers are not going to touch the child. Speak to the trauma of the rest of the students and the fact that they have to be taken out of the room while the child with invisible disabilities acts out. If you don’t have any answers other than to prohibit any action at all, you should remain silent.

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