By Suzie Glassman
The Douglas County School District, the local sheriff’s office and three school-assigned officers agreed last week to settle a lawsuit brought against them by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Colorado for their handling of an 11-year-old student with autism on Aug. 29, 2019, at Sagewood Middle School.
After a classmate wrote with markers on the student, identified as A.V., the student became upset and poked the classmate with a pencil. The student was in the process of calming down with the school psychologist when the officers arrested him.
The officers, who are often referred to as school resource officers, placed him in a patrol car for hours while he banged his head. Rather than seek medical attention, the officers took him to a juvenile detention center, where his parents were later allowed to place bail for $25,000.
Douglas County had a disturbing record of disproportionately putting children with disabilities and children of color into restraints and seclusion.”
After none of the officers involved were disciplined for the way they handled the child, the ACLU filed a lawsuit on March 21, 2021, on behalf of A.V.’s parents. The lawsuit claimed the Douglas County School District and the Douglas County Sheriff failed to properly train the officers. The district contracts with the sheriff to place law enforcement in its schools.
According to the lawsuit, “The Sheriff’s policies state that all officers are trained in recognizing mental health and related disorders, including autism, and trained in de-escalation techniques. But in reality, SROs receive little or no training on interacting with students with disabilities, how to approach such students, how to de-escalate such students, how to keep these students safe, or when to seek medical attention for such students.”
The SROs were Sydney Nicholson, Lyle Peterson and Daniel Coyle.
After more than two years in court, the ACLU announced Nov. 22 that all of the parties named in the suit agreed to a settlement offer.
“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,” said the ACLU.
“The defendants will also ensure that all SROs review the Behavioral Improvement Plans (a written improvement plan to help students who struggle with behavior issues in class) 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’ plans,” the ACLU stated.
According to an ACLU press release, “Douglas County had a disturbing record of disproportionately putting children with disabilities and children of color into restraints and seclusion. In this case, the SROs demonstrated a lack of training when they approached this student in a threatening manner that escalated the situation. We are hopeful that these new policies will ensure that students’ rights are protected.”
The school district and the sheriff’s office released a joint statement saying it’s rare for a school resource officer to handcuff a student. They acknowledged the 2019 incident happened but stated the officers involved denied any wrongdoing.
Yet, the school district, sheriff’s office and the officers agreed to the settlement offer. According to the statement, starting this year:
- Any SRO assigned to a DCSD school must complete training on interacting with people with disabilities, which has been specifically designed for law enforcement.
- SROs shall have access to student Behavioral Intervention Plans (BIPs) consistent with the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, and SROs shall make reasonable efforts to comply with such plans when interacting with students. This includes the requirement that SROs specifically review, on an annual basis, any BIP for students with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) who have previously demonstrated behavior that poses a safety risk to themselves or others.
- School administrators and licensed mental health staff shall receive annual training regarding SRO roles and responsibilities, including that: (i) SROs are not responsible for requests to resolve routine discipline matters involving students; (ii) where practical, DCSD staff should contact school building administrators to make a determination as to whether to call SROs regarding a dysregulated student who has an IEP; and (iii) for incidents involving a student with an IEP who is dysregulated, school building administrators should only request SRO law enforcement assistance after making reasonable efforts to comply with any de-escalation techniques described in the student’s BIP; and
- SROs shall exercise force consistent with law and DCSO policy, and restraint and seclusion of students by SROs must be avoided to the greatest extent possible without endangering the safety of students and staff. SROs shall also make reasonable efforts to comply with de-escalation techniques described in a student’s BIP, if any, before employing restraint or seclusion against a student.
“Student conflict should never be handled like a criminal matter,” said Deborah Richardson, ACLU of Colorado executive director. “With these revised policies, we can ensure that all students, especially those who need specific accommodations, feel safe at school.”
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