“One of A.V.’s struggles is he doesn’t advocate for himself very well. Will he ever feel comfortable advocating for himself and his friends again? Will he ever feel safe talking to a police officer again?”
Michelle Hanson always wanted her kids to go to their neighborhood schools until the day her 11-year-old son A.V. ended up handcuffed in the back of a police car for hours, sobbing, injured, and traumatized.
Like most young people, A.V. is more than just one thing. He is a beloved son, a fun brother, a protective friend and an enthusiastic student. A.V. also has autism and prior to the day he is arrested, he’s excited about going to middle school. A.V. is part of an affective needs program for students who require additional resources to succeed. He attends general education classes with aides who observe and assist students as needed. A.V. also has an individualized education plan (IEP) that outlines his necessary accommodations and potential triggers, like touch and loud sounds. It shouldn’t have been surprising that he didn’t react well that day. But it is astounding that adults who should know better reacted far worse.
Michelle says A.V. had three weeks of “gold” — “they were phenomenal weeks,” until that Thursday when everything changed. While working in class with another student from the affective needs program, a third student joins A.V.’s group and starts giving them a hard time. He writes on A.V’s arm with markers and then tries to write on his clothes. According to Michelle, A.V. tries to stick up for himself and his friend. He asks several times for the student to stop, but they continue and the aide never intervenes. That’s when A.V. pokes him twice with his pencil. A.V. leaves the classroom voluntarily and is calming down with the school psychologist when the School Resource Officers (SROs) insist on stepping in and a situation that could have been handled constructively becomes a criminal matter.
The police video of what transpires next is painful to watch and harder to hear. It’s even more excruciating to take in if you’re A.V.’s parents, and it’s debilitating to live with if you’re A.V. All that A.V’s parents know after a call from his teacher that Thursday morning is that there was an incident between A.V. and another student. But it is hours before they discover what camera footage reveals: that A.V. had started to regulate himself and is calm before the SROs approach him, that the principal told the SROs about A.V. and his disabilities before they approached him, and that, regardless, they continued to intervene and aggravate the situation rather than remedy it. Instead of the principal, his teachers, a counselor, or his parents handling the situation, two unfamiliar adult men in police uniforms confront A.V. Scared, confused, and backed into a corner, what would you do?
A.V. becomes increasingly agitated as the SROs fail to understand him or back off. Shouting ensues and soon he is handcuffed and paraded through school with officers holding him by his arms and the back of his neck. Once outside, the SROs force him into the back of their patrol car as A.V. continues to scream, “Stop! Stop! You’re hurting me!”
Distraught and triggered, A.V. bangs his forehead against the partition in the police car. To make matters worse, his parents are unaware of what’s happening. Tired of waiting to hear back from someone at school, A.V.’s father drives over for answers. He’s taken to the SRO office to speak with one of the officers while A.V. remains restrained in the back of the patrol car. A.V.’s father is told they’re filing charges against A.V. for assaulting a police officer and poking the student with his pencil. The SROs do not allow A.V.’s father to speak to his son. He pleads with the officers to take A.V. to a medical facility instead, and reminds them that he is only 11-years-old and has autism. But common sense and compassion cease to exist once the criminal legal system comes into the picture. The police take A.V. to the Marvin W. Foote Youth Services Center where he is held on a $25,000 bond.
There are certain experiences most parents never expect to have. One is having their 11-year-old child get arrested, and the other is having to come up with thousands of dollars to bail them out. A.V. ‘s parents frantically contact the facility several times throughout the day trying to find out when he will arrive and to let them know about his diagnosis of autism. They leave several messages for the medical team and talk with the administration staff, desperately trying to inform them about his triggers, like certain sensations and loud sounds. But despite their pleas, the family is told that A.V. will have to be put into the general population once he is checked in. The family is finally able to come up with the bond later that night. According to the family, everyone at the facility is shocked that an 11-year-old boy with autism would be there in the first place — let alone on a $25,000 bond. Finally, after more than 10 hours, A.V. is released; but the ordeal has only just begun.
“When we saw him, his forehead and arms were so swollen and bruised,” Michelle said. “A.V. doesn’t headbang. He must have been extremely dysregulated. After we bailed him out, he wouldn’t eat, wouldn’t speak. It didn’t have to be that way.”
The next day, they call the facility to find out if A.V. was medically examined so that they can understand the extent of his injuries. The center says they were not notified by the police to do a medical exam on A.V., even though he was handcuffed for several hours, had banged his head repeatedly in the police car, and was visibly dysregulated and traumatized while in custody. If the role of SROs is to keep kids safe from harm, then they failed A.V. miserably.
His father takes him to see a doctor the day after he’s released from the facility. A.V. presents with a head injury, headache and swollen wrists. The doctor’s note describes the incident with more clarity than the school or the police provide:
A.V., an 11-year-old male, has been ill for 1 day with symptoms of headache. Pt (patient) is autistic. He had a bad reaction – he was in class, the child next to him was trying to write on him with markers, the situation escalated, pt then lost his temper… The teachers (and principal) asked the police (SROs) to stay back and let him continue to calm down and self regulate. Instead the police went into the room, A.V. really lost his temper, was kicking and fighting to get away from the police. The police then kept him in their police car for 2-3 hours – pt admitted to hitting his head repeatedly on the safety glass in the car. He was charged with 2nd degree assault on a police officer… Pt was transported to the Foote center – FOC (family of child) had to advocate that A.V. not be put in the main population… Pt never had a medical evaluation yesterday.
Still trying to understand all that’s happened, his parents call the school and speak to his teacher who is also concerned about A.V. She says the school was told by the SROs not to contact the family. A.V. is suspended for two days and before he can return there needs to be a complete re-entry meeting. According to his parents, his teacher apologizes and acknowledges that a lot of things were done wrong that day. She tells them that they specifically asked the SROs not to approach A.V. because it could cause him to escalate but that the SROs dismissed that direction. A.V.’s teacher says she tried to go to the police car to comfort him but wasn’t allowed by the SROs.
Later, his parents are able to get his backpack, his phone and his headphones from school. Adding insult to injury, Michelle sees that his headphones are crushed into pieces. (When the SROs arrived, A.V. had his headphones on to calm down with some of his special sensory music which is allowed and encouraged as part of his IEP). “Why shatter his headphones, which are like his security blanket,” Michelle said. “That just felt cruel.”
Cruel becomes a familiar feeling as A.V. ‘s parents find out from the Douglas County District Attorney there is a restraining order against him to protect the SRO who first approached him. Dumfounded, his parents ask how A.V. is supposed to return to school with a restraining order hanging over his head. The family is told they would have to figure it out with the school — a school that barely communicates and couldn’t keep their son out of the system. Several days after the incident, A.V.’s teacher calls Michelle to see why he isn’t in class even though the re-entry meeting has yet to happen. Michelle explains that she is not comfortable with A.V. returning to school with an SRO who has a restraining order against her son. The teacher says the SRO came by class looking for A.V. — he wants to make things right. After causing her son to become so dysregulated and traumatized, and placing a restraining order against him, Michelle is shocked by the audacity.
“There are few schools with an affective needs classroom, usually with about 12 children, one teacher and several educational assistants,” Michelle says. “The SROs have a responsibility to know these children, their IEPs and their triggers. They have a responsibility to do better.”
Six days after that fateful day, it’s cold comfort when the principal finally calls the family to check on A.V. His parents express their concerns and ask why the aide didn’t intervene before things got out of hand. The principal says that sometimes aides sit back to let kids problem solve on their own. But A.V.’s IEP clearly states that touch is a trigger. A.V. didn’t learn how to problem solve that day, he was simply set up to fail.
The DA chooses to pile five charges against him in the end: second-degree assault on a police officer, third-degree assault on the child involved, resisting arrest, and harassment of the principal and the assistant principal despite the fact that they didn’t want to press charges. Clinging to any kind of hope and determined to help their son, A.V.’s parents arrange an intake appointment at Children’s Hospital. A.V. attends daily treatment at the hospital for weeks to process what’s happened to him. During the incident at school that day, the SROs badger A.V. to respond to their questions and show frustration when he doesn’t communicate. But the school psychologist, who was sitting next to A.V., told the SROs that A.V. was not highly verbal when they were asking him questions. The SROs, unwilling and untrained to understand children like A.V. and their triggers, only regard his disability as defiance. As a result, now on top of everything else A.V. suffers from severe PTSD.
“It was a really messy process after Children’s Hospital,” Michelle said. “Lots of lawyers and specialists. A good month of work missed due to court appointments. Lots of tears. A.V. was — is — definitely traumatized. We all are.”
What A.V. and his family experienced that day has lasted long after the cuffs came off. The DA required A.V. to go through a court-ordered diversion program that lasted 11 months. A.V. is at a new school now but still struggles with severe anxiety which means more missed school for him, and more missed work for Michelle. He’s still scared and nervous around SROs and police but working to rebuild trust. The family is healing but the scars cut deep.
“I just pray that there are SROs with better training who know about IEPs and kids like A.V.,” Michelle said. “Sometimes our kids look defiant but they’re not, they’re just not in a good space. They need compassion not handcuffs.”