Nationwide, federal data shows hundreds of elementary school-aged children are handcuffed and arrested at school every year, and many of those are children with disabilities. In Colorado, nearly a third of all of the students arrested last school year were students with disabilities, according to an analysis of data from the Colorado Department of Education.
The state data CBS News Colorado obtained also shows since 2018, employees at Colorado public schools called police on more than 4,200 students with disabilities and more than 130 of those students were arrested.
Last year alone, the data shows school employees called police on 1,165 students with disabilities, and 34 of them were arrested. In total last year, 114 students were arrested in public schools across the state.
Now, families of some of those children are calling for systemic changes.
"I don't think that people understand people with disabilities," said a father of a boy with disabilities, who was arrested at an elementary school in Timnath in 2020.
The father asked us to disguise his identity to protect his son's privacy.
"Them getting in trouble with police officers changes their outlook on life, and their ability to work through and be the best kids they can be," the father said. "It's adding insult to injury to be picking on these kids."
His son is twice exceptional, saying he's highly intelligent in some areas, but his social and emotional development is years behind other kids his age.
He says a Timnath Police school resource officer arrested his son at Bethke Elementary School in January 2020, when his son was in the fifth grade.
He claims the school resource officer wrongly intervened one day when his son was having an emotional episode in a school hallway. He says the SRO took matters into his own hands, picking up the child and carrying him to the classroom he was supposed to be in.
"At that point, he became more dysregulated," the father recalled in an interview with CBS News Colorado. "In this particular case, the SRO stayed outside the classroom, where the behavior expert, and special education teacher, and therapist were helping our son, and at one point, the SRO thought that our son had hit a teacher, and burst in and threw our son to the ground... and handcuffed him, and at that point, our son fought for his life, and he was scared."
The father says his son was charged with felony assault and disrupting the classroom, a charge the family's attorney says he had never seen before.
"He wasn't doing anything wrong," the father said. "He just didn't understand why he was being attacked."
The boy's father says the incident caused his son to become more angry and afraid to leave the house, to the point he needed to go to a residential treatment facility to get more intensive care. That's where he's lived for the last 15 months.
"It was a massive, massive setback," the father said. "If this SRO just wasn't there, it would have been another tough day for him, not a life-changing day."
The child's family says the SRO ignored the boy's behavior intervention plan, a document they say the school was "amazing" at following, until that day.
"If this SRO had worked in concert and understood his behavior plan and knew when to be involved, it would have been different," the father said.
The family's attorney, Jack Robinson, claims police violated the boy's civil rights by not following that plan.
"The individualized education program includes addressing the child's behavior... to work together to create an appropriate environment in which that child can learn that's legally federally and state-mandated," Robinson said.
The family sued the Poudre School District and Timnath Police. While they say they reached a confidential settlement with the school district, they're still fighting a court battle against the police department, and they're working to obtain police body camera video of the incident.
"The Town of Timnath is fighting this pretty aggressively," Robinson said. "Their position is, and it's a typical position, is we're cops, we do what cops do... not taking any responsibility for this. The only thing that I can gather from their position on this is that they have unfettered control to do what they want in the school building."
CBS News Colorado asked the town of Timnath and Poudre Schools for a comment, but both agencies declined. Timnath declined due to ongoing litigation, and Poudre declined citing privacy protections under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
In 2019, a Douglas County Sheriff's Deputy school resource officer handcuffed and arrested an 11-year-old boy with Autism at Sagewood Middle School.
Sensitive to touch, the family's attorneys say the boy got upset after a classmate wrote on him, so he poked the classmate with his pencil.
Attorneys say a school psychologist was helping the boy calm down when the school's resource officer "insisted" on intervening.
When the boy wouldn't move, body camera video shows the SRO handcuffing him, dragging him out of school and forcing him into the back of a squad car.
His parents are suing the school district and the sheriff's office. Neither agency, nor the child's family, would comment due to the pending lawsuit.
Meanwhile, some experts say arresting kids — especially those with disabilities — isn't productive, because their young developing minds can't process tough situations as well as adults.
"They just literally lose all sense of being able to think about things and what they're trying to do," says child trauma psychologist Dr. Sonya Mathies Dinizulu. "The kid does not have any capacity to really think about the consequences of these actions that come much later, when things are kind of settled down, and you're able to access that part of the brain to help you reason and understand what has happened."
The child's family believes solutions for the future are simple: all schools should be required to train SROs on behavior intervention plans.
CBS News Colorado asked the town of Timnath about what training it has implemented for its officers about dealing with students with disabilities, but the town's attorney refused to comment. Poudre Schools also did not comment on any updated training.
CBS News Colorado also asked the Douglas County School District about the training for its SROs, but it also would not comment. Regarding training, the Douglas County Sheriff's Department would only say, "our training is ever evolving as new trends and standards arise."
However, independent officer-training specialist Ali Thompson, owner of Pulse Line Collaborative Training, which has been hired by departments to train officers on dealing with people with disabilities,that after one of the deputies involved in the Douglas County incident took her company's training, he said, "if I had had all of this training, that wouldn't have happened."
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