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Denton ISD Faces Scrutiny After Officer Seen Handcuffing, Pinning Down Autistic Child

DENTON, Texas (CBSDFW.COM) - A North Texas school district is under scrutiny before the start of the new school year after a newly-released video shows how a resource officer handled an autistic child in April.

The incident happened at Alexander Elementary School. Mother Emily Brown's heart hurts watching the new body-cam video.

"You're flooded with so many different emotions. Anger, hurt and just lonesomeness," said Brown.

The video shows her autistic son, Thomas, backed into a cubby.

Denton police said the 10-year-old was being disruptive and swinging a computer mouse near other kids. School resource officer Eric Coulston is shown picking up Thomas as he shouts and struggles.

Father Robert Brown said the officer carried Thomas into a quiet place called a "soar room" and "face planted" the child. "I actually feel helpless for him," he said.

The special needs student was handcuffed and pinned to the ground. Police said Thomas kicked and spit on the officer.

Autistic child handcuffed
Body-cam video shows an autistic child being handcuffed at Alexander Elementary School in Denton. (Mike Holum)

"He's scared. He's got a lot of anxiety because the very people that I told him to trust... he can't," said Thomas' mother.

In a statement, Denton ISD said protocol was followed:

We have protocols in place to ensure the safety of all of our students. In this instance, the student resource officer (SRO) made the determination, after all other efforts to deescalate the situation proved ineffective, that the student was a detriment to his own safety and that of the other students and staff. As with any situation that involves an SRO handling a student, we will continue to review our practices and work with our partner law enforcement agencies - in this case the Denton Police Department - to ensure that established protocol is followed safely and effectively.

The city said a review found "no violations" to laws or policies. "The decision to use restraints was made only when the child posed a serious threat to himself or others. Once the child was calm, the restraints were removed," the statement read.

"It's the worst nightmare for these parents," said child advocate Michael Holum, who is helping the family.

Emily Brown is seen comforting her son in the video. She said she was called after two hours.

"It's disgusting that this officer is put there to protect and serve our children, and he abused a disabled, little boy. He showed no compassion in that room," said Brown.

The family is considering taking legal action against the police department and the district. According to the family, Thomas will be going to a different school this fall.

Officer Coulston still works as a school resource officer.

Full City of Denton statement:

Given the totality of circumstances and the information known to the officer, the officer acted in a manner that best protected the student, other students, and the staff.

Officer Coulston was there to help control the classroom environment as the student was engaging in disruptive and assaultive behavior towards other students. The officer's assessment of the situation was that the student posed a threat and could potentially harm himself or others. As a peace officer, Officer Coulston had a responsibility to protect the other students, staff, and the student from himself.

Officers are trained to evaluate situations and decide what actions best protect students, staff, and others from harm, including to protect students from self-harm. In this incident, the officer's assessment of the situation was that the child was posing a serious threat of injury to himself or others, and the decision to use restraints was made only when the child posed a serious threat to himself or others. Once the child was calm, the restraints were removed.

As is permitted by the Texas Administrative Code, restraints can only be used in situations where the student is posing an imminent, serious physical threat of harm to himself/herself or property.

The Denton Police Department Office of Professional Standards initiated a review of the incident to ensure compliance with all applicable laws and Departmental policies. The review was completed and no violations were found.

Officer Coulston is still employed as a School Resource Officer for DPD at a middle school in Denton ISD.

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