On March 9, we filed a lawsuit on behalf of a Douglas County family whose 11-year-old son, A.V., was handcuffed, restrained in the back of a police car for hours, injured, traumatized and held on $25,000 bail after an unnecessary School Resource Officer (SRO) response.

“I have never as a parent been tested like I have with this situation with J.L.” 

As the mother of four children with four different personalities and learning styles Heidi Laursen was used to wearing different hats to advocate for her kids. She had one daughter who was in gifted programs, who all the teachers loved, one with a variety of strengths and talents, who rarely required additional support, and another daughter who had dyslexia and required accommodations through an IEP. While there were a few initial challenges to get her daughter the help she needed, that process was mostly positive. But when her youngest child, J.L., showed signs of needing accommodations she found the process “jaw-droppingly different.” 

J.L. started having some behavioral problems in preschool. His teacher recognized him as “eccentric” but smart. As an ECE student at Dora Moore, J.L. was seen as misbehaving in class and was later banned from the Christmas program. That incident and the idea that he was “bad” increased J.L.’s feelings of despair when he came back to school the next year for Kindergarten. Not long after school started Heidi remembers J.L. saying things like, “I’m bad, I’m trash,” and “I wish you never grew me. I want to die.” She sought outside counseling for J.L. and his negative talk dramatically decreased. When Heidi went to the school asking for more help for J.L. she was initially told they didn’t offer IEPs for kindergarteners.

Heidi tried her best to be proactive with J.L.’s school but was consistently bogged down by bureaucracy. She continued to ask for help and a meeting was set for early February only to be cancelled and rescheduled by the school three times. When it finally took place in mid-April, Heidi was told that it was too close to the end of the school year for them to perform an evaluation and it would have to be pushed to the fall. In the meantime, J.L.’s behavior continued to escalate. One day, he made a mess in the classroom, and the school called Denver Public Schools security before calling J.L.’s parents.

When Heidi was finally informed about the incident, and when she arrived at school, she had two conversations that haunt her to this day. One was with the principal, who specifically instructed her not to comfort J.L. because she said Heidi coddled him too much. The other was with a boy who saw her coming to pick up J.L. and told her: your little boy just got arrested. “I could definitely see why a little kid would view it like that,” Heidi said. “But it made my heart cringe with pain to hear it.”

Yet, nothing would make her heart sink like the sight of one officer holding J.L. by his legs while another held his arms and shoulders. To her horror, when she got to the classroom she found her 6-year-old son struggling and suspended in the air. J.L. was writhing and breathing heavily - not quite hyperventilating, but not normal either. It was too much to take in. When Heidi approached, the officers let him go and she hugged J.L. and held him until his breathing slowed down and he was calm. She started picking up the classroom and was encouraging J.L. to start picking up too. His father arrived and did the same. Eventually J.L. started picking up. Things seemed to be calming down until Heidi said the principal came in with the custodian and told J.L. that he should feel really bad for all the extra work he caused and for what he'd done. J.L. re-escalated and ran out of the classroom. His dad went after him and brought him back to the classroom. They finished picking up the crayons and other objects on the floor, then left for an emergency counseling session with J.L.’s therapist.

While J.L. was not formally diagnosed his therapist thought he might be a child with high performing autism. But without any accommodations or understanding from the school that J.L. processes differently, he only received punishment and so did his parents. J.L. received an out of school suspension for a day after the classroom incident. When he returned, Heidi and J.L.’s father were informed one of them would have to stay with J.L. until 10 a.m. every day for a week and that  J.L. couldn’t go on the class picnic or class trip unless he was accompanied by a family member. One of J.L.’s older sisters had to chaperone since Heidi had already missed too much work due to the school’s requirements.

Struggling without support in school, J.L.’s parents continued to seek outside help. Those evaluations confirmed that J.L. suffered from debilitating anxiety and sensory issues. J.L. wasn’t “bad” - he just needed better solutions at school. But that support was still a long way away. The next year while still waiting for accommodations J.L. had several outbursts and was removed from the classroom. Heidi said they were often informed after the fact. Next, they were told that they needed to pick up J.L. up every day at 11:30 a.m. until the school could figure it out. That lasted about three weeks until the family was connected with Advocacy Denver in the hopes of getting J.L. the free and appropriate education he was entitled to. His advocate quickly got him back to a full time schedule but a day later he was suspended for having an outburst. Once again, the SROs were called in. Heidi said they were called at least three times — three that she knows of.

“I was notified and provided documentation of the incident that took place in the fall, probably because our advocate was involved,” Heidi said. “Until then, I didn’t even know they were supposed to provide a written notice. I was verbally told about another incident by the teacher. When our advocate requested records, we found out that the school had not been documenting any of the calls made to the SRO’s or providing us with notifications. We have no idea how many other times J.L. was restrained.”

J.L.’s IEP wasn’t being met and to Heidi it felt like they were trying to push him out of school. “I felt like the bad guy,” she said. “They didn’t want him. No one at school was talking to me anymore.” Heidi wasn’t the only one who felt like the bad guy. The stigma of SRO calls and suspensions instead of IEP accommodations made J.L. feel worse about himself than ever. In the end, the family switched him to another school in the hopes of getting him the help he needed and a fresh start.

“My heart sank learning about how J.L. hated going to school,” Heidi said. “I want J.L. to be in a better situation and I don’t want any other kids to go through that.”