Emily and Robert Brown, the parents of an autistic 10-year-old boy named Thomas, are irate and planning to sue after watching a two-hour-long video that captures their son being repeatedly pinned down by his neck and handcuffed by a school resource officer at Alexander Elementary School in Denton, Texas.
The incident started when Thomas reportedly began poking other students in his special needs class and ignoring the demands of his teachers. He then hid in a cubby and had to be extricated by a teacher, after which the school resource officer was called in and carried him away, kicking and screaming, to the “quiet-down space.”
Once in the more isolated area, the officer, Eric Coulston, immediately put Thomas on the ground, pinning him there by the neck. He can be heard making comments like, “We’re back to where we were the other day,” and “Do you want the handcuffs? Or not?”
Thomas can be heard screaming and crying, “Get off!” in the video as Coulston places a pair of handcuffs on his wrists. Another teacher holds his face and attempts to calm him, telling him it’s “time to stop.”
After Thomas calms down a little, the officer frees him from the cuffs. But when Thomas gets upset shortly after and begins ripping up a tissue and throwing the pieces at the teacher, Coulston warns him once, then pins him down again and demands that he put his hands behind his back so he can be handcuffed once more.
Coulston removes the handcuffs and allows the boy some time to calm down before his mother shows up, unaware of all that has transpired, and takes him home.
“Take a long last look at this room,” another officer warns as Thomas and his mom leave. “Let this be the last time you’re in here.”
Later that day, Ms. Brown noticed severe bruises all over her son’s body. That’s when she and her husband decided they needed to investigate the incident further. The Browns eventually got a chance to look at the incriminating bodycam footage, which shocked and angered them. Ms. Brown says she broke down while watching it.
“It’s abuse, the torture, and the hell that he was put through,” she says.
Thomas’s family has a detailed behavior plan on file at his school, complete with de-escalation techniques to keep his behavior in check. But nowhere in that plan is anyone permitted to forcibly hold Thomas down or use restraints on him.
Ms. Brown also notes that this isn’t the first time she’s seen her son in handcuffs at his elementary school either. The first time she came to pick him up and found him cuffed, just a few days before this incident, she believed what the officers said—that he had been harming other children and had to be restrained for safety reasons.
This time, she knows better. A report by the Denton Intermediate School district states that Thomas had engaged in “physically assaultive and unsafe behaviors” and had to be handcuffed to “minimize the student’s ability to harm himself or engage in acts of violence against others.” But the Browns have seen the footage and don’t believe there’s any evidence that their son was harming anyone. They are now seeking legal action against the people responsible to keep them from being near children with disabilities ever again.
“It was excessive. It was vicious. It was calculated,” says Michael Holum, an advocate consultant representing the family. “If he’s being put in handcuffs just because of a tissue, that’s outrageous. I do this professionally in over 50 districts. This is the worst I have ever seen, and there’s no close second.”
“We as parents will never stop fighting for our son or other children,” the Browns said in a statement. “So that they can be safe within the walls of their school and free of physical emotional, and psychological [abuse] at the hands of the very people that are publicly employed to protect them.”
You can see Thomas being restrained in the clip below from the bodycam video. Warning: footage may be disturbing to some viewers.
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Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?