Parents sue Leon County School Board after child with autism arrested, handcuffed

The child, diagnosed with autism, also has an anxiety disorder and ADHD, according to the suit.

Tallahassee Democrat | by CD Davidson-Hiers | November 23, 2020

A local family is suing the Leon County School Board and a school resource officer, alleging the officer arrested their son with autism under the state’s Baker Act, placed him in handcuffs and took him to The Apalachee Center without first notifying the parents. 

The Apalachee Center is a local mental health and psychiatric facility located on Capital Circle NE. The Baker Act allows for involuntary confinement for a mental health exam.

Attorney Marie Mattox of Tallahassee filed the lawsuit in Leon County Circuit Civil court on behalf of parents Tracy and Christopher Johnston. 

The family is seeking damages over $30,000 for mental anguish, pain and suffering, loss of capacity for the enjoyment of life, embarrassment and humiliation. 

A complaint in a lawsuit tells one side of a story. The school district “does not comment on open litigation,” spokesman Chris Petley said. 

The lawsuit, filed earlier this month, also says School Resource Officer Cecilia Crego falsely imprisoned the child, who is identified only with his initials in the complaint.

Crego is a certified law enforcement officer with the Leon County Sheriff’s Office and has more than seven years of experience in law enforcement, and more than three years experience as a school resource deputy, according to an annual LCSO report to the School Board. (The suit also names Sheriff Walt McNeil as one of the defendants.)

The child, diagnosed with autism, also has a generalized anxiety disorder and attention deficit hyperactive disorder, according to the suit. 

In January 2019, the child’s teacher sent him to the guidance office because he was having a difficult time on a math test, the lawsuit reads. While in the office, Crego “repeatedly engaged him in an aggressive and combative manner” and said she would arrest the child if he did not calm down, the lawsuit alleges. 

In response, the child made multiple requests to call his mom, then began banging his head against the wall and threatening to cut off his finger so the school would have to let him call home, the lawsuit reads. 

Apalachee Center.
Apalachee Center. Democrat files

“Crego had an opportunity to deescalate the situation and display sensitivity to the needs of a child; she instead chose to be verbally abusive, mocking (the child) and accusing him of faking his emotional state,” the lawsuit reads. 

Crego then took the child herself to the Apalachee Center, according to the suit. The boy’s parents were not called until about 2 p.m., which was three hours after he first started having troubles during the math test that morning, according to the suit. Crego told Tracy the school had tried to contact her. 

The lawsuit notes the only time Tracy was alerted to her son’s arrest was when Crego called to say they were on their way to The Apalachee Center. 

The Leon school district’s procedural handbook says if a child is at risk of suicide and a parent cannot be reached, school administrators and school resource officers have the authority to decide on an appropriate course of action. 

Tracy then asked Crego to take her son to Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare, which Crego refused, according to the suit. Tracy drove to The Apalachee Center to retrieve her son and saw Crego remove handcuffs from the boy’s wrists, according to the complaint. 

Featured photo: Teen with Autism advocates to ban restraint and seclusion in schools. 14-year old, Alex Campbell, who has autism, is one of the most powerful voices in the movement to better document and regulate restraint in schools. USA TODAY

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