DENVER – ACLU of Colorado filed suit in March 2021 against the Douglas County School District, Douglas County Sheriff and several School Resource Officers (SROs) after they aggressively handcuffed an eleven-year-old Hispanic child with autism (A.V.) and left him in a patrol car for hours, causing him to become so dysregulated that he banged his head repeatedly and sustained injuries. Without seeking medical attention, officers drove the child to a juvenile detention center and placed him in custody until his parents were able to post a $25,000 bond. ACLU of Colorado sued the district and officers involved in this case, for violating the student’s rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fourth Amendment.
The ACLU of Colorado recently reached a settlement of this case that includes important policy changes by the Douglas County School District that we believe will make its schools safer for students with disabilities. Pursuant to the settlement, the defendants have agreed to require advanced training for any SROs assigned to the Douglas County School District, to include training created by the disability rights community that will improve interactions between law enforcement and students with disabilities. The defendants will also ensure that all SROs review the Behavioral Improvement Plans (BIP) specific to each student and comply with those plans when interacting with the student. Important reporting requirements will also ensure that the SROs are complying with de-escalation techniques consistent with students’ BIPs. You can read about the Settlement here.
“When we saw him, his forehead and arms were so swollen and bruised,” his mother Michelle Hanson said. “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.”
In August 2019, A.V. faced disability-related challenges when a classmate at Sagewood Middle School wrote on him with a marker. A.V. is part of an affective needs classroom and has an individualized education plan (IEP) that outlines his necessary accommodations and potential triggers, like touch. A.V. was triggered by the student writing on him and the classroom aide did not intervene. A.V. got upset and poked the other student with his pencil. Even though A.V. left the classroom voluntarily after this and was calming down with the help of the school psychologist, the SROs insisted on stepping in and a situation that could have been handled constructively became a criminal matter.
The Douglas County School District and Sheriff’s Office had 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.
Douglas County has a long record of disproportionately putting children with disabilities and children of color into restraints and seclusion, and referring these students to law enforcement. In the 2018–2019 school year, the Douglas County School District restrained and secluded more students than any other Colorado school district. The 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. A Colorado Department of Education report found that during the 2018–2019 school year special education students were nearly three times as likely to be referred to law enforcement than those with no special education needs. The study also showed that Latinx students were more than five times as likely to be referred to law enforcement than non-Latinx students.
“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 ACLU of Colorado Cooperating Attorney Jack Robinson. “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 SROs involved are deputies who work for the Douglas County Sheriff. None of the SROs were disciplined in A.V.'s case. On the contrary, SRO Sidney Nicholson, was commended for his handling of the situation. He was deemed to have completed his SRO training and recommended to be moved to solo status just a few days after the incident. Only months after handcuffing A.V., SRO Nicholson repeated his behavior, handcuffing a twelve-year-old child with disabilities after that child became escalated. As with A.V., he left that child handcuffed for hours. In both cases, the SROs’ actions resulted in unnecessary criminal charges being filed against the children.
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 in reality, SROs receive little or no training on interacting with students with disabilities and how to keep these students safe. In A.V. 's case, the SROs demonstrated their lack of training when they approached him in a threatening manner that escalated the situation. Then, although the SROs knew A.V. was hurt, they refused to get him medical attention. As a result of being handcuffed, arrested and held in custody for hours while his parents scrambled to meet the $25,000 bond, A.V. now suffers from severe anxiety and PTSD.
“One of A.V. struggles is he doesn’t advocate for himself very well,” Ms. Hanson said. “Will he ever feel comfortable advocating for himself and his friends again? Will he ever feel safe talking to a police officer again?”
ACLU PRESS RELEASES:
"Douglas County School District Agrees to Revise Policies Following Settlement in ACLU Lawsuit against the District, Douglas County Sheriff’s Office and Several School Resource Officers", November 22, 2023
"Douglas County School District Settles Americans with Disabilities Act Lawsuit", The Denver Gazette, November 22, 2023
"Douglas County Lawsuit Settled After Boy with Autism Handcuffed", Fox 31, November 22, 2023
"Change Coming to Douglas County Schools, Sheriff's Office After Lawsuit Settlement", 9 News, November 22, 2023