A seven-year-old with autism was restrained by a police officer at a North Carolina elementary school for at least 38 minutes, according to body camera footage of the incident –capturing the officer putting his knee in the minor’s back and tightening the handcuffs when the little boy complained they hurt.
“Don’t make a wrong move,” the police officer told the child as he pinned the struggling subject to the ground. “Period.”
The unnamed second grader allegedly spit at a teacher earlier that day.
“If you, my friend, are not acquainted with the juvenile justice system, you will be very shortly,” the police officer told the handcuffed child.
Alacia Gerardi, the mother of the young boy commented on the officer’s treatment of her son, saying:
“I believe a lot of it is a misunderstanding with children who are struggling, that they believe that in general, that behavior indicates intention. And when you’re dealing with a child who’s going through a difficult time, any child, that is not the case.”
The school called Gerardi, telling her he was having a rough day. They later sent a text telling her to pick him up. When she arrived, what she witnessed would make any mother concerned – seeing her helpless child handcuffed and face down on the floor.
“At that point, I had no idea why [he was handcuffed],” she said. “I couldn’t fathom in my mind what could possibly have occurred to make handcuffing a 7-year-old face down on the floor necessary.”
While Gerardi and her son’s story is egregious, unfortunately, it’s not unique.
Hundreds of children are arrested each year by School Resource Officers on campus – with Black children and kids with disabilities being disproportionately affected.
A report by CBS News found that children with disabilities are four times more likely to be arrested while at school, and Black students – despite being only 15% of the elementary school population – account for nearly half of all of the arrests on campus.
Middle school students with disabilities are twice as likely to be arrested – with Black middle schoolers three times as likely.
“It’s a deep, deep concern for all of us. And it has been for over a distressingly long period of time that we see students with disabilities disproportionately referred to law enforcement. We see students of color disproportionately referred to law enforcement,” said Assistant Secretary for the Department of Education, Catherine Lhamon, who watched the video of the second grader’s arrest.
“Kids with disabilities, part of their systems are immature, and it’s still maturing. Because it’s not as mature as some other kids who can regulate themselves a little bit better, they often tend to get pinpointed and targeted,” trauma psychologist Sonya Mathies Dinizulu explained.
Gerardi told reporters the school was aware of her son’s delicate situation, and that he was enrolled in an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) – a federally mandated plan for meeting the needs of students with disabilities – that documented his needs.
On the day in question, Gerardi’s son was disciplined for tapping his pencil repeatedly – a coping mechanism spurred by anxiety – police were called after he reportedly spit on the teacher.
I have a real hard time understanding that these adults don’t have a better solution than to do this,” Gerardi said. “The long-term effects, the trauma of putting a child in a completely powerless situation, even physically over their body and causing them harm based on a behavior is ludicrous to me.”
“It was a very rude awakening, because when I arrived there and I picked my son up off the floor, he was limp, completely limp. He was just exhausted. I didn’t know what had happened, but after I saw the video, it was very apparent that his little body just couldn’t take being put in that position for that length of time. He had his chest against the floor, his hands behind his back. This man’s applying pressure against his back.”
The officer in question claims to not have intentionally harmed Gerardi’s son. His attorney released a statement saying that his client “did the best he could,” and wasn’t aware of the child’s medical history.
Llahmon admitted there may be times when arresting a child as young as Gerardi’s son is warranted, but acknowledged the video made her uneasy.
“There is very little that I saw in that video that is acceptable, and there’s very little on that video that is consistent with federal civil rights obligations,” she said.
In July, the Department of Education enacted new guidelines that require school officials to properly evaluate students with disabilities before disciplining them.
Assistant Secretary Lhamon called the disproportionate impact law enforcement encounters have on children with disabilities “deeply disturbing.”
Original reporting by Chris Hacker, Aparna Zalani, Jose Sanchez, and Stephen Stock at CBS News.
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