DENVER — Douglas County school resource officers handcuffed an 11-year-old boy with autism, grabbed him by the back of the neck, left him for two hours in a patrol car — 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 this week.

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 provided by the ACLU of Colorado 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.

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“When we saw him, his forehead and arms were so swollen and bruised,” his mother Michelle Hanson said in a news release. “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.

“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.”

A spokeswoman from the Douglas County School District said the district couldn’t comment or answer questions about active litigation. Lauren Childress, spokeswoman for the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, said the agency could not discuss the allegations in the lawsuit and emailed a statement.

“The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office is committed to protecting the entire community, especially the students and staff who attend our schools,” the statement said. “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 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 or allow the two to talk, the lawsuit states. Instead, they took him to the Marvin W. Foote Youth Services Center and did not get the child medical attention.

Hanson, the boy’s mother, said she frantically called the children’s jail to tell staff that her son had autism. She said the jail staff kept him separate from other children during the approximately seven hours he was in the facility. The child was released after his family posted bond but his head looked disfigured from bashing it in the patrol car, Hanson said.

“He looked horrible,” she told The Denver Post. “His hands were swollen, his head was bruised.”

The child wouldn’t speak or eat. Hanson didn’t hear her son’s description of what happened until they met several days later with a criminal defense attorney, who convinced the boy to write down what happened.

The boy never returned to the school and had to transfer elsewhere, his mother said. Now, he visibly shakes when he sees a uniformed law enforcement officer.

“He was never scared of going to school before this,” Hanson said. “He never had attendance problems before this.”

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.”

The allegations come as Colorado lawmakers consider a bill that would prohibit the use of monetary bonds in juvenile cases, though it would still allow a judge to hold a child without bond if the juvenile is a safety or flight risk. The legislation would reduce the maximum number of juvenile jail beds available across the state by about 43%, from 327 to 188.

“In this case, A.V. was lucky that his parents could collect bond on short notice and get him out,” Herzberg said. “Not all parents are able to do that.”

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