“I’m worried about him ending up like Elijah McClain.”
Shandie Harris fears for her son J.J.’s life every day. As a six foot tall, 230 pound young Black man, teachers and law enforcement often see 16-year-old J.J. as a threat. J.J. has autism and learns at a 5th grade level. He has an IEP but that hasn’t been enough to shield him from bias and a system determined to misunderstand his needs.
“He doesn’t look like he has a disability,” Shandie said. “He runs when he’s scared. I’ve tried to give him bracelets. I’ve tried to protect him. But I worry all the time. Are the police going to hurt him? Are they going to kill him? He is my whole heartbeat.”
At Overland High School, Shandie said J.J. was followed by security often and that they’d kicked him off school grounds at random. During one incident, Shandie said his teacher felt intimidated by him. This resulted in J.J. getting ticketed at school for harassment, having to go to court, getting suspended and having a restraining order filed against him. Shandie was unaware of any issue at school that day until an officer called her.
“I felt like they were trying to put him in the system,” Shandie said. “Why not call me first? I could’ve helped de-escalate the situation.”
But like many other parents, Shandie wasn’t included as a resource for her son until after the fact. She has tried to advocate for better SRO training in his school district but said nothing has changed. “They don’t understand him,” she said. “They’re not trained to. They’re not trained to deal with kids with special needs.”
While the legal case against J.J. was ultimately dismissed, both he and Shandie are struggling. J.J. has been depressed and doesn’t want to be at school after having bad experiences with SROs, experiences Shandie said he doesn’t fully understand. “I kept telling him every day, ‘We need to do this,” Shandie said. “I keep trying to motivate him but I feel he’s regressed.” He’s not alone. Because of court appointments, coordinating J.J.s needs and navigating his trauma, Shandie’s missed more work than she can afford to — at least 80 hours. J.J. is now an online student, a decision Shandie feels they were forced to make after the school said they didn’t have enough staff to meet his needs coupled with his trauma. His sister is a varsity athlete but J.J. won’t even attend the games because of the way he’s been treated. Shandie hopes he’ll be able to return to a regular classroom someday but right now he’s still too traumatized.
“We’re going to try to take baby steps next year,” she said. “It’s been a very traumatic experience for him. It’s been very traumatic for me too. I cry all the time.”