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Colorado officials: Denver Public Schools violated rights of Black students with disabilities

Colorado officials say DPS violated rights of Black students with disabilities
Colorado officials say DPS violated rights of Black students with disabilities 03:10

The Colorado Department of Education found Denver Public Schools has been violating the rights of Black students with disabilities.

The Johnson family still remembers every moment of the day their third grader, with autism, was handcuffed. Their son Terrance, who is now an adult, remembers it, too.  

Eleven years ago, Terrance Johnson was assigned to an affective needs center program. It's designed for students with emotional disabilities, not students with autism. His bus ride home was 45 minutes long. One afternoon, Terrance started crying "it's too long." He left his seat and kicked the paraprofessional on the bus. The driver turned the bus around and took Terrance back to school.  

The principal called the police and then Terrance's parents.

His father, Donald Johnson, is still trying to make sense of it.

"They're putting an 8-year-old child in a police car to go to the hospital in handcuffs," said Donald. "They would not let my wife talk to him. They would not let us have any contact with him." 

They removed his handcuffs after arriving to the hospital.  

Looking back, Terrance told CBS News Colorado's Tori Mason he felt nervous.  

"They wouldn't let me go home because I was throwing a tantrum. I was freaking out because the kids were stressing me out. It was really overwhelming," said Terrance. "I was scared." 

His father told CBS News Colorado he didn't take legal action against the district after the incident with his son.  

"Where does it go? It brings awareness for a quick second and then when it stops to trend, it gets swept under the rug," said Donald. "To see that, not have an answer to it, and not have a resolution for it? It is shattering." 

AdvocacyDenver worked with the family and the district and Terrance was moved to a program designed for children with autism. The Johnsons were one of the first families Pam Bisceglia at AdvocacyDenver worked with.  

"We saw a pattern over and over and over again. We're an agency that always tries to work with the district to resolve issues at a district level. Different leaders were responsive, there were different promises. But then we got to a point where it had been going on too long," said Bisceglia.  

Earlier this month, CDE found that the district failed to make appropriate eligibility determinations, systematically failed to educate students in their least restrictive environment and systematically failed to develop, review, and revise learning plans tailored to students' individualized needs. 

In an interview with CBS News Colorado, Julie Rottier-Lukens, DPS Executive Director of the Office of Exceptional Student Service, says they take responsibility.  

"This is evidence of systemic challenges and institutional racism and it will take a long time for us to turn things around, but we are 100% committed to doing so," said Rottier-Lukens.  

In 2020, Bisceglia says they progressed when the district initiated Project DISRUPT as a means to dismantle institutionalized racism, but it came to halt.

Rottier-Lukens says it was more of a pivot to ensuring DPS is examining the continuum of services across different programs to address the equity issues for all students of color.

"When we took a closer look, we recognized that there were issues of disproportionality across many different areas of service for our Black students," said Rottier-Lukens. "Underrepresentation of our children, who are Black or African American, in our gifted programming, for example."

DPS says they're taking steps recommended by CDE.

"While we certainly are not proud of these findings, we are going to live by our value of accountability. We're owning this responsibility. We will make changes and move forward and continue to involve the community as we make improvements for our children," said Rottier-Lukens. 

Advocates hope other families don't have to endure what Terrance suffered.

"It made me feel very sad that I had to be put in handcuffs because I didn't do anything wrong," said Terrance. "I feel like I'm going to remember this for the rest of my life."

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