ACLU files lawsuit against Douglas County School District, sheriff's office

Lawsuit alleges SROs discriminated against student with autism

Jessica Gibbs
jgibbs@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 3/9/21

The America Civil Liberties Union of Colorado and a Douglas County mother are suing the Douglas County School District, Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock and three school resource officers for a …

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ACLU files lawsuit against Douglas County School District, sheriff's office

Lawsuit alleges SROs discriminated against student with autism

Posted

The America Civil Liberties Union of Colorado and a Douglas County mother are suing the Douglas County School District, Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock and three school resource officers for a 2019 incident, alleging deputies unnecessarily handcuffed, detained and charged an 11-year-old Hispanic child with autism.

The lawsuit, filed in district court on March 9 and released by the ACLU, says school resource officers intervened unnecessarily after a classroom disagreement between students, “aggressively handcuffed” the child with autism, held him in a patrol car for more than two hours, and failed to seek medical attention for injuries he sustained during the incident.

"When we saw him, his forehead and arms were so swollen and bruised," the child's mother Michelle Hanson said in a news release. "When we bailed him out, he wouldn't eat, wouldn't speak."

Hanson said head-banging is uncharacteristic of her son and that the exchange with law enforcement left him traumatized. 

The lawsuit seeks compensatory damages from the school district, the sheriff and SROs, as well as punitive damages from SROs Sidney “Chance” Nicholson, Lyle Peterson and Daniel Coyle. 

A spokeswoman for the sheriff's office released a statement saying deputies were told a student had been stabbed with scissors and that a staff member had been assaulted before they confronted the child with autism. 

"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," the statement said.

A spokeswoman for the Douglas County School District provided a statement regarding the ACLU's announcement. 

"The school district has not been served with the complaint and has not yet had the opportunity to fully analyze its allegations and claims," the statement said. "Further, the district does not comment on active litigation and will have no comment to make outside of the court proceedings."

The incident took place in August 2019 at Sagewood Middle School when the student, who the lawsuit states is sensitive to touch, became upset because a peer wrote on him with markers. The then 11-year-old responded by scratching the other child with a pencil, according to the lawsuit.

A photo included in the court filing released by the ACLU shows a scratch with light bleeding on the forearm of the student who drew on the boy.

A classroom aide texted school administrators asking for help with the situation, according to the lawsuit. Dean of Students Christine Funk and Principal Ben D'Ardenne arrived and requested the child with autism leave the room.

They said the boy pushed past them and walked to another area of the school where he sat down. The boy then “de-escalated while listening to special sensory music through his headphones” and sat with a school psychologist, according to the lawsuit.

Nicholson and Peterson responded to Sagewood after the principal texted them about the incident. The lawsuit says Principal D'Ardenne informed officers the student “stabbed” a peer with a pencil and had serious emotional disabilities but had calmed down.

The officers approached the boy and the school psychologist. They asked the student to speak with officers in the SRO office, although he did not respond beyond shaking his head no. The psychologist told officers the boy did not speak often and typically responded with head nods, according to the lawsuit.

“Then, despite the fact that (the student) was sitting quietly and there was no emergency requiring immediate intervention, SRO Nicholson and Peterson abruptly approached (the student) in a threatening manner and aggressively handcuffed him,” the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit alleges officers continued physically detaining the boy despite the child saying, “Stop, you're hurting me,” and later “Ow! You're choking me,” after an SRO held him by the neck. Body camera footage also released by the ACLU shows the boy screaming as SROs physically detain him. The video shows him banging his head against a wall as he is cuffed and crying as SROs remove him from the school.

The sheriff's office statement said the body camera footage released by the ACLU was redacted and not released in its entirety. 

While detained, the student “banged his head repeatedly against the plexiglass of the patrol car and cried in pain,” the lawsuit states. Coyle arrived as the child was held in the patrol car. The officers “ignored the principal's warnings about (the student) inflicting self-harm in the past,” the lawsuit alleges.

School resource officers barred the child's stepfather from seeing him at the school, according to the lawsuit, and declined to get the child medical attention at Children's Hospital.

An officer then drove the child to a juvenile detention center where he was held on charges of assault, harassment and resisting arrest, according to the lawsuit. The boy remained in custody until his parents posted $25,000 bond. Charges have since been dropped.

Nicholson was still in field training at the time of the incident, according to the lawsuit. Peterson was supervising Nicholson and commended him for his handling of the matter. Days later Nicholson was promoted to solo duty, according to the lawsuit. Within months, the SRO handcuffed another 12-year-old child with disabilities for hours, the lawsuit alleges.

The SROs did not face disciplinary action despite violating sheriff's office policy, the lawsuit alleges.

The Sagewood student has demonstrated fear, distrust and anxiety when interacting with law enforcement since the incident, according to the lawsuit.

The 2019-20 school year was the first year that school resource officers were assigned to middle schools, according to the lawsuit, which argues neither the sheriff's office nor the school district provided the SROs with appropriate training in working with students who have disabilities.

The Douglas County Sheriff's Office has worked to expand its school resource officer program after a fatal shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch in May 2019. The number of sheriff's office SROs grew from nine in the 2018-19 school year to more than 20 in the 2019-20 school year, with the help of $3 million from the county, which was matched by the school district. The sheriff's office and the school district typically split the cost of SROs.

This story has been updated with statements from the Douglas County School District and the Douglas County Sheriff's Office. This is a developing story.

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