Disturbing Video of Autistic Child Handcuffing: Lawsuit and More

A resource officer and an autistic child known as A.V., as seen in a 2019 video released by the ACLU of Colorado.
A resource officer and an autistic child known as A.V., as seen in a 2019 video released by the ACLU of Colorado.
Douglas County's school district and sheriff's office are on the spot after the ACLU of Colorado filed a lawsuit over an August 2019 incident in which an eleven-year-old autistic boy referred to in the document as A.V. was handcuffed and left to bang his head in a patrol car for hours after he poked another child with a pencil.

The incident was captured on body-camera video — and the edit of the material is stirring up controversy. Meanwhile, the ACLU stresses the connection between what happened to A.V. and a new bill set for its first appearance before a Colorado Senate committee that would eliminate the use of monetary bail related to incarcerating kids.

"In this particular case, the family would not have been asked to post a $25,000 bond to bring home their eleven-year-old child," notes Elise Logemann, the ACLU of Colorado's juvenile-justice policy counsel. "Had this family not had the ability to post the bond, which many families do not, the child — who has autism — might have remained behind bars in a secure juvenile facility."

The handcuffing of young children had already made headlines in 2019 prior to the A.V. matter. That June, the Denver School Board banned the use of handcuffs on elementary school students, with the exception of those displaying a deadly weapon, after a family publicly shared the story of a campus safety officer putting cuffs on a seven-year-old. Shortly thereafter, Denver Public Schools released data revealing that 65 handcuffings had taken place in the district over the previous two years, with one fifth-grader getting the treatment four times over a twelve-month span.

Cut to August 29, when A.V., who is Hispanic and was part of an affective-needs classroom at Sagewood Middle School, reacted to a fellow student writing on him with a marker by poking the boy with his pencil.

According to the lawsuit, A.V. subsequently left the classroom voluntarily after calming down. But shortly thereafter, school resource officers got involved; in addition to the Douglas County School District, the suit names Sidney Nicholson, Lyle Peterson and Daniel Coyle, as well as Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock, who was not present but is cited in his official capacity. The boy became severely agitated after the cuffs were placed on him, and once he was put in the patrol car, he banged his head repeatedly, causing a range of injuries.

In a statement, Michelle Hanson, A.V.'s mother, recalls: "When we saw him, his forehead and arms were so swollen and bruised. A.V. doesn’t headbang. He must have been extremely dysregulated. After we bailed him out, he wouldn’t eat, wouldn’t speak. A.V. was — is — definitely traumatized. We all are."

Here's the video issued by the ACLU (its contents may disturb some readers):

The ACLU argues that Douglas County and other educational institutions in the state have a record of "disproportionately putting children with disabilities and children of color into restraints and seclusion, and referring these students to law enforcement." Exhibit A is a Colorado Department of Education report showing that "during the 2018–2019 school year, special education students were nearly three times as likely to be referred to law enforcement than those with no special education needs. The study also showed that Latinx students were more than five times as likely to be referred to law enforcement than non-Latinx students," according to the filing.

After the lawsuit was filed on March 9, the Douglas County School District issued this statement: "The School District has not been served with the complaint and has not yet had the opportunity to fully analyze its allegations and claims. Further, the District does not comment on active litigation and will have no comment to make outside of the court proceedings."

The Douglas County Sheriff's Office offered some context in its March 9 statement, which begins with this: "The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office is committed to protecting the entire community, especially the students and staff who attend our schools. When we receive a call for service, especially one that involves a criminal allegation, we must respond. In this particular incident, it was reported that a student had stabbed another student with a pair of scissors. It was also reported that a staff member had been assaulted."

The DCSO statement then added: "We just received the lawsuit filed by the ACLU and therefore cannot discuss information about the allegations. However, we do note that the body camera video attached to the ACLU media release has been redacted and was not released by the ACLU to the media in its entirety."

This last comment was copied to journalists representing multiple media organizations, including Westword; several requested all of the video mentioned by the sheriff's office, whose position seemed unusual coming from a law enforcement agency. Indeed, in two separate police shootings covered by Westword — the July 2017 killing of Jeremy Holmes by a CSU police officer and the Colorado Springs police gun-down of De'Von Bailey in August 2019 — advocates for the victims complained that authorities had edited video to bolster the argument that the cops did nothing wrong.

After reporters requested the footage mentioned by the DCSO, they were sent a form to request it; so far, no additional video has been released.

Meanwhile, the proposed legislation known both as SB21-071 and "Limit the Detention of Juveniles" is set for a hearing later this week. Beyond prohibiting the imposition of "secured monetary or property conditions on bond for juveniles charged with or accused of committing a delinquent act," the measure also "reduces the juvenile detention bed cap from 327 beds to 188 beds beginning in fiscal year 2021-22."

That change is important, according to the ACLU's Logemann, because Colorado "has appropriately been using detention beds to incarcerate children charged with violent crimes who pose a danger to the community, and not to detain children charged with non-violent offenses. The bill will ensure that we continue to avoid locking up low-risk youth. In this case, an eleven-year-old child with autism might not have been detained, and traumatized, for poking another student with a pencil."

SB21-071 is set to be heard by the Senate Judiciary Committee at 1:30 p.m. March 11. Click to read A.V. v. Douglas County School District Re-1, et al.