Policing and special needs

If you’re the parent of a child on the autism spectrum, this is the kind of story that sends chills down your spine:

The video from former Statesville Police Officer Michael Fattaleh’s body camera shows him rushing across a classroom toward two women who are sitting with a small boy.

“OK, I’ve got him. He’s mine now,” Fattaleh says. He takes the 7-year-old, autistic child from the women, handcuffs the boy’s arms behind his back and presses him to the floor.

According to the video of the Sept. 11, 2018, incident, the student remains in that position for the next 38 minutes. Sometimes he sits quietly. Other times he sobs in apparent pain or pleads for Fattaleh to let him go.

“I’ve got all day, dude,” the officer says early in the encounter. “… If you are not acquainted with the juvenile justice system, you will be shortly.”

The boy’s crime? According to a new lawsuit filed by the child’s mother, identified as A.G., Fattaleh says he saw the special needs student spitting in a “quiet room” at the Pressly Alternative School in Statesville.


According to Charlotte attorney Alex Heroy, who is representing the boy’s mother, Fattaleh inappropriately injected himself into a situation without being summoned by the boy’s teachers, then used physical force that caused the child at times to scream out in pain.

“It’s one of the worst videos I’ve ever seen,” Heroy told the Observer on Friday.

“A school resource officer at a school for special needs students handcuffs and pins a 7-year-old boy to the ground for almost 40 minutes? There is never a need for that, particularly since there was never a threat of harm to anyone. The reported act was that the child spit on the floor. That should never justify this kind of a response to a kid, to a child.”

The mother’s lawsuit against Fattaleh, the city of Statesville and the Iredell-Statesville Board of Education was filed Friday in federal court in Charlotte.

Most of the acrimonious debate about American policing has centred around race, but as the Washington Post points out, many controversial cases have involved people with mental health issues:

With much of the country debating when and where police should be called on to help, the harrowing incident in North Carolina casts a light on two scenarios that some advocates argue should fall outside the roles of law enforcement: an urgent mental health crisis — and one taking place inside a school classroom.

Yet, as cash-strapped city budgets and safety concerns have pushed more officers into these sensitive situations, there have been no shortage of eerily similar incidents in the two years since Fattaleh resigned. Earlier this year, a 41-year-old Black man in Rochester, N.Y., was hooded and pinned during an incident that officers characterized as a mental breakdown. Like the boy in Statesville, Daniel Prude — who died a week later — had reportedly been spitting before the officers intervened.

In Vance County, N.C., a school resource officer was fired last December after he repeatedly slammed an 11-year-old to the floor of a middle school hallway. And last month, a 13-year-old with autism was shot and wounded by police in Salt Lake City after he made threats involving a weapon, officers said.

Does this mean police should not be involved in such cases at all? I’m not sure I’d go that far – sadly, sometimes people experiencing mental health crises really do pose a danger to society and to the professionals dealing with them, and force is absolutely necessary. Like most issues, it is far more complicated than either “abolish/defund the police” or “back the blue” advocates would have to you believe.

There’s no argument that people with special needs are being poorly served by the status quo, however. And Americans can bring about change by taking out their cameras and filming whenever they see a situation like this. And voting.

One thought on “Policing and special needs

  1. M says:

    I guess this particular schoolyard bully never made it to (emotional) adulthood.

    Remembering an incident in which I had to remove an adult male from a 5-year-old in a similar situation with a nursing baby in my other arm, the guy is lucky I’m not that kid’s mother. The biggest problem here is that such a person is given **authority** which he was never taught to understand and respect – but the women did respect it instead of taking action. This is the factor that gives such people the power to be truly dangerous in a way that makes a parent’s blood freeze. Power should only be given to those who are humble enough to comprehend that it is a duty, not an entitlement. Otherwise, the innocent suffer the consequences.

    There is one thing one can do when such a person approaches: be on the ball to physically get between the inappropriately intervening adult and the child. They then have a choice of tackling someone their own size or backing off. A direct, calm gaze is surprisingly effective here: it communicates the feeling that they are being watched AND lets the person know that you’re standing your ground (regardless of how you actually feel). Incidentally, this is one good reason to read up on assertive body language.

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