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New Jersey Employment and Civil Rights Trial Lawyer Discusses 10-year-old Autistic Child Being Arrested in Florida

On Behalf of | May 1, 2017 | Civil Rights |

Or…”Florida’s Ignorance Continues Unabated”

As a civil rights attorney, one of the areas with which we deal is discrimination in schools. Sometimes it’s bullying. Sometimes it’s a refusal to accommodate a disability. There are many disabilities to which students are subject. Many of these can be physical or entirely physiological, such as accommodations for sugar intake for juvenile diabetes, leaving or arriving at classes early for students who have mobility issues, provision of special equipment, etc. The more difficult issues with which to deal, however, arise when a student has disabilities that are cognitive or emotional in nature, especially those that are “syndromic” which defy precise labelling and diagnosis of extent and nature.

Autism is an organic brain neuro-atypicality that is best understood as a “spectrum” disorder because no two people with Autism are alike. Autism is not like a broken hip; a hip is a hip, and diagnosis and treatment is not much subject to medical debate. One of the most frequent expressions of autistic symptomatology is an inability to act in a fashion that the dominant culture deems “appropriate” in any given set of circumstances. Many autistic people – nearly all of them – lack some degree of “awareness” of what behavior or speech is “acceptable,” from a societal sense, under certain circumstances. They lack what more “neurotypical” people have, that allows a “sense” of what is ok, and not ok, to do and say.

This is not a “choice” that an autistic person makes. An autistic person does not evaluate all possible opportunities to speak or react to a particular set of circumstances and select the conduct that’s going to be the most effective, or the least offensive or disturbing, to the dominant cultural “normal” perceptions.

Almost everyone understands this reality of autism, to some degree. At least, people who take the time not to be ignorant do.

Then, we have Florida, the state that helped give us Donald Trump.

John Haygood is a 10 year old student at Okeechobee Achievement Academy. He was arrested – yes, I said arrested, like what you do to adults who do really bad things – at his school, last week, for felony battery against a paraprofessional.

Just so you know, felony battery is a pretty serious crime, involving not only requisite physical conduct, but a requisite mental intent to commit an act which the person knows is not right under the circumstances. It ain’t disorderly persons stuff.

Also by the way, this “Academy” is a place where students with either behavioral, developmental or cognitive issues go especially. You’d assume that any “paraprofessional” working in that environment would be somewhat ready for atypical behavior, no?

John was being disruptive in class, throwing paper balls around the classroom and hitting other students, etc. He was asked to go to timeout, refused, and that’s when our little master criminal “attacked” the paraprofessional. Admittedly, he did things that, in other contexts, and certainly outside an academy that welcomes autistic students, would be a bit chilling. He threatened to “kill” the teacher (remember he’s 10).

In October, John was expelled from the Academy and had been completing his schoolwork from home. Last Wednesday, he returned to the Academy to take a standardized test, but was being noncompliant. After he was given time to take the test, the police arrested him based upon the fact that there was an “active warrant.” The arresting officer was told by the student “Don’t touch me, I don’t like to be touched” (not wanting to be touched is exceedingly common for kids on the spectrum).

This 10 year old was then handcuffed and transported to juvenile detention, where he spent the night away from his family. The next day, he appeared in court on charges of assault, and was released. A disturbing video demonstrates that the entire time he is being arrested, he’s terrified and repeats words to the effect of “I don’t know what’s happening.”

This entire course of conduct, in which both the school and the police are entirely complicit and entirely responsible, demonstrates a profound ignorance; but much worse, in today’s day and age, there is no excuse for this state of ignorance on the part of people involved in this sort of situation. We’re not talking about the Piggly Wiggly clerk who doesn’t understand autism and who never graduated high school and never bothered to do any reading or look around the planet for the last ten years. We’re talking about teachers at a school for students on the spectrum and police that should absolutely have been trained on how to deal with spectrum-disorder individuals, both juvenile and adult.

I’m not arguing that there’s no set of circumstances in which police ought not be summoned, nor any set of circumstances where police might not have to assist in restraining or arresting someone who is a danger to themselves or others.

But arrest? Overnight detention from away from his family for a 10 year old?

Shame on Florida. Wasn’t helping to inflict Trump on us all enough screwing up for this century?