Autistic 9-year-old student handcuffed

CASPER — A 9-year-old Casper student with high-functioning autism was restrained and handcuffed last year, resulting in an investigation by the federal Department of Education into how the student was treated in the months leading up to the incident. 

The investigation, conducted by the federal Office of Civil Rights, spans six different allegations, according to a letter sent by federal investigators to the student’s mother. They include failing to respond to harassment by other students; disciplining the student differently than others; and for restraining the student too often. 

The complaints were made by Sara Harris, the student’s mother, in November. Her son was a 9-year-old student at Pineview Elementary. In October, before Harris made her complaint, Pineview officials called the police on her son after he became disruptive and allegedly made threats against himself and others, according to a police incident report. 

The student was bear-hugged by the officer, who took him to the ground. The student repeatedly asked the officer to tase him and to take him to jail, according to Harris and the police description of the event. After Officer Davis Romero told the student he was going to jail, the student calmed down, according to the report and the mother. As he was leaving, Pineview Principal Chris Carruth-Britt told the student he wasn’t going to jail.

That comment, an expert said, re-escalated the student. The report indicates as much: The student began struggling again, and Romero handcuffed him. The 9-year-old was taken out to the officer’s car and was later transported to Wyoming Medical Center, where he was restrained and medicated on a Title 25 hold. He then spent time at the Wyoming Behavioral Institute. 

Jacque Phillips, a Denver lawyer who taught and has a PhD in special education, was incredulous about the school’s actions. She reviewed the police’s description of the event, the student’s special education plan and the letter from the Office of Civil Rights indicating that the agency was opening an investigation.

She found the incident disturbing. 

“Where the f—- are the adults?” she said, adding that the decision to call the police was “incompetent at best.” “Are you f—-ing kidding me? You can’t handle a 9-year-old kid and you have to call the f—-ing police?” 

In a statement, Natrona County School District spokeswoman Tanya Southerland said the district was aware of the investigation by the federal government and that officials could not comment until the inquiry was completed. 

“At this time, in order to not interfere with the investigative process of the Office of Civil Rights, additional specific details cannot be shared,” she wrote in an email. 

Harris initially said Romero “chased and tackled” her son. After viewing the body cam footage, which she said didn’t show the entire incident because of the placement of the officer’s body, she said she thought “the cop did the best he could” in the circumstances. 

Casper Police Lt. Daniel Dundas said the student wasn’t tackled or chased. He said Romero handled the situation “perfectly,” to the point that he thought the video could be used as training material. He said the 911 call was for a person making threats; Romero wasn’t told until after the incident was over that the student was on an individualized education program, which is a document outlining a special education student’s needs and issues. 

Dundas said the student and Romero went to ground because of how hard the student was struggling. He praised Romero and said he was an experienced officer. 

The police report indicates the student was in the middle of a hallway, with staff standing on either end. Phillips bristled at that scene. 

“First question is, why are all the adults standing in the hallway while the kid’s having a meltdown,” she said. “First of all, you have kids’ trusted adults there. A counselor, a teacher. All those other adults, get the f—- out of the hallway. What’s wrong with you? This is a lesson on how to escalate a kid. They escalated him.” 

She said teachers are trained in how to safely restrain students, which she called a “nice, easy hold” that she likened to a strong hug. 

“It’s the school’s responsibility to inform anyone in contact with the kid about his behavior plan and his triggers,” Phillips added. 

The student’s IEP notes that he had repeated behavioral issues — 27 through April of the 2018-19 school year. It states that he is easily overwhelmed and that noise is a “trigger for outbursts.” 

Asked if it would’ve changed how the situation was handled had Romero been informed of the student’s needs, Dundas said it might have. But he said officers were typically given a minimum amount of information before responding to a call and they often had to learn details on the fly. 

Romero isn’t a school response officer. He was nearby when the call came in and took it because no SRO was immediately available. 

Neither the school district nor the police department have specific policies about when police should respond to schools, nor does either agency track how often that happens. Neither keep track of how often police officers use any sort of force in schools, and the school district doesn’t require administrators to fill out any reports when an officer responds to an incident. 

Phillips was critical primarily of the school district but expressed frustration with how the officer handled the situation, too. 

She said her base-level issue was that the officer was called in the first place. 

“His disability is he can’t calm himself,” she said of the student. “What should you do, put him on the ground and handcuff him? Would anybody think that’s an appropriate intervention for a kid? I get he’s a traffic cop and he got called, but I think I could go after the school and win. Where are the teachers? Where are the interventions? Not one teacher there who could put the kid in a nonviolent hold until he calmed down? Why did that not happen?” 

Harris’ allegations extend beyond the incident with the officer. She says her son was able to get out of the front doors of the school repeatedly when he had behavioral issues in school. She said he’d been forgotten by staff members in the school and had been able to wander freely. She said her son needs quiet space, which — she says — the school has been unable to provide. That forms one of the allegations being investigated by the Office of Civil Rights. 

She also alleges that her son was repeatedly restrained at school without her knowledge and that he didn’t receive the therapy he was supposed to, both of which are other parts of the investigation. 

She has since pulled both of her sons out of Pineview. She is homeschooling them now. 

“It’s going to be a while I think before it — I think for even a normal child, it would be incredibly traumatizing and hard to let go,” she said. “But he’s autistic so everything is incredibly black-and-white. ‘OK, I had a bad incident with an officer, I’m always going to have bad incidents with the officer.’” 

Harris has had minimal contact with the district since. She said she was contacted by the district after the civil rights investigation began, and the police department called her after the agency was contacted by the Star-Tribune. 

The federal investigation is ongoing. Harris spoke with the attorney handling the complaint for the agency and said she came away feeling the district had lied about several parts of the case. 

The district was provided with a list of questions related to Harris’ specific concerns. Officials declined to comment. 

Phillips said it was significant that the Office of Civil Rights was looking into six allegations. She said the office doesn’t investigate every complaint it gets and that attorneys are often annoyed that it doesn’t take on more allegations.

 “Having six allegations is a lot,” she said. “Like typically, we might have two or three, so to have six, that’s a big flag for me. It’s a flag that there’s a problem. 

“That’s not looking great for the school,” she added. “There’s a pretty high probability that one of them’s going to be a problem.”