It was Aug. 27, the third day of remote-learning at Colorado Springs' Grand Mountain School and Isaiah Elliott was in art class. At first, it was the same computer screen experience many kids and parents have come to know in the pandemic times — then things went awry.
What happened next is a bit murky because accounts vary and the video recording only captured a slice of interaction. The 12-year-old's art teacher said she saw him showing what she thought was a toy gun on screen.
At the time, she said she couldn't be sure it wasn't real and the incident was reported to the school's vice-principal. A report of a possible gun in class — albeit in a remote learning context — set in motion a chain of events that ended in a school suspension and a home visit from two school resource officers, who are in this case, armed El Paso County Sheriff’s deputies.
Isaiah's parents, Curtis and Danielle Elliott, were frightened by what happened after the report. First, because they are an African American family living in a "cultural climate of racial divide and police brutality," as Danielle put it, and out of concern for the welfare of their son as they balance working and the new realities of distance learning for their child.
Danielle believes her son knows that having a toy gun whose shape looks similar to a real one at his brick and mortar school would be a serious issue.
“However,” she said in an interview with Colorado Matters, “I am almost in my 30s and I didn't even realize that having a toy gun in the home would ever even come to something as insane as that. So for me to expect a 12-year-old child who's adapting to this learning environment for him to know better than to do something like that, you know, to me was just, it's insane.”
There is recorded body camera footage from the officers and the El Paso Sheriff did attempt to clarify things on social media to allay the parent’s concerns when the incident went viral. They also deferred any additional comment to the district. When contacted for comment the district sent a written statement to CPR News.
“Our policies and practices have been developed around in-person learning,” said the statement provided to Colorado Public Radio. “However, we are currently reviewing those for appropriate application to distance learning. We like many school districts have been faced with several challenges in such a short period of time that we have been reacting. Instead of reflecting, we realize that we are living and educating in a different world. We cannot comment on the specific incident due to privacy laws. We regret the inadvertent fear caused for the family and we empathize with them.”
Stress Of A Police Encounter
Before law enforcement became involved, Danielle said she got an email from the teacher “stating that [Isaiah] had been extremely distracted during class and that he was playing with what she said ... she assumed to be a toy gun.” Danielle wrote back to say “that it was in fact just a toy gun and that I would talk with Isaiah about his disruptive behavior.”
Danielle pointed out that her child has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, a diagnosis the school is aware of. And this art teacher knows Isaiah well because she taught him the previous year. Roughly four hours after she received the first email alert, she said she “received a call from the vice principal stating that the police were on route to my home.”
At work and terrified, she called her husband, Curtis, who had run to the office for an errand at the time. She told him what had happened and asked him to go straight home.
“After that,” Danielle said, “I immediately called my son to tell him to lock the doors, not open the door. The police were en route. Stay away from the windows. Put his toy gun away and go downstairs in the basement until his father got home.”
The death of Tamir Rice was Danielle’s “very first thought.” Twelve-year-old Rice was shot and killed by a white police officer in Cleveland, Ohio in 2014. He had been holding a toy gun.
“Anytime an officer is dispatched to a possible gun situation, they don't get the full story or the full picture,” she said. “They just hear ‘young armed African American possible troublemaker.’ And my son looks a lot older than 12.”
Curtis Elliott was frightened too and rushed home when he heard what was happening.
“And my initial thought,” he said, “was also of fear thinking that the police were going to storm in, thinking my son had a real gun.”
He hoped to calm the situation by alerting police dispatch to avoid an overreaction if they beat him home. Curtis was there however when the officers arrived and explained they were there to ensure Isaiah didn’t have a real gun.
“They briefly explained to Isaiah the importance of not getting distracted while learning and that a toy gun wasn't appropriate during the online class environment,” Curtis said
But Danielle has trouble with this part. She was listening on speakerphone throughout the encounter.
“They had these conversations about not getting distracted and threatening to press charges,” she said, “all before even verifying whether or not it was a toy gun, which further leads me to believe that they knew it was a toy prior to even arriving.”
Officials Say Safety Was The Focus
In the released body camera footage, before the home visit, Grand Mountain Vice-Principal Keri Lindaman said to the officers, “I’d just keep trying to emphasize the safety of the situation.”
But Danielle said she thinks if the school was truly interested in Isaiah’s safety, the family’s safety, or even the officers’ own safety, they would have tried to establish in the first few minutes of the home visit whether the gun had been a real one or not.
Lindaman is also seen telling the officers in advance of the home visit that she had been instructed by the school district “that a 5-day suspension seemed appropriate” as punishment for Isaiah. Danielle pointed out that the school’s policy for bringing a real weapon to school is immediate expulsion. So she thinks this shows the school knew before coming to her house that the gun had been a toy.
If the school had been afraid for Isaiah’s safety, she said “they would have called me immediately. I believe they would not have procrastinated and had these cops arrive four and a half hours later.”
Body camera footage records one deputy telling the vice principal that it appeared there were no criminal actions committed that would lead to pressing criminal charges.
“However,” Danielle said, “when they arrived at my home, they said on multiple occasions to my son, that they could press charges for interference with an educational institution. And that if anything similar like this were to ever occur in the future, he would be facing charges.”
Curtis was concerned by this too as he listened to the officers speak with his son.
“In my head the whole time, I'm thinking that my son's either going to go to jail or have criminal charges pressed against him,” he said. “So my goal at that point was just to comply, show them that it was a toy, and get them out of there in fear for my child and for myself.”
The Elliotts were frustrated by what they said was the lack of guidance as the school moved to online learning, especially since their son has special needs. They felt equally uninformed about what school discipline would look like during e-learning. And it never occurred to Danielle that “something as innocent as a child playing with a toy in the privacy of his own home” could lead to an officer showing up at her door.
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The school saw fit to suspend Isaiah for five days, but his parents still don’t think he did anything wrong.
“I think it was a complete overreach of jurisdiction for the school administration to send the police in my home to potentially intimidate him and to criminalize childlike behavior.”
She re-emphasized his ADHD diagnosis, that the very nature of the disorder causes him to become easily distracted, to have difficulty sitting still and focusing for long periods of time.
“The fact that he was fiddling with something that was in the room around him, particularly this toy on that day, that's just the typical symptom of this disease,” Danielle said.
And there’s another thing. Isaiah wasn’t the only kid in the room when the gun appeared on his art teacher’s video screen. Isaiah and a friend who attends the same school but is in a different class was also there virtually learning on a separate computer.
The slice of recorded video that Isaiah’s art teacher submitted to the officers, which is recorded on the body camera footage, shows his friend waving the gun in the air for a moment, not Isaiah. But his teacher said he had been moving the gun around on screen prior to the moment, it just hadn’t been captured by the video because Isaiah hadn’t been talking.
The other student was at the Elliott’s home during the police visit and was also suspended from school.
Are School Policies Now In The Home?
All of this highlights the complexity of safety and privacy issues in the remote learning context. Danielle said her son was told he could never cover up his camera during class or turn his screen off because of attendance and participation concerns. But Danielle believes that in itself creates privacy issues.
“We're allowing these educators into our private lives,” she said.
On top of that, they hadn’t known the school was recording his son during class.
“I didn't give permission. My wife didn't give permission. Frankly, no other parents in the district gave permission,” Curtis said. “They admitted it. That they were trying something new.”
The Elliotts have pulled their son out of Grand Mountain School and out of the Widefield School District. They are hoping to get him into a nearby charter school. Danielle is still waiting for a public apology from the school and the sheriff’s office.
“To hold children to the same standard as an adult to me is completely insane because they are in fact, just children.”
Her son now has a suspension on record at the school and an informational document on file with the sheriff’s department. Even though it’s not a criminal record, she worries it could make him more vulnerable later in life.
“These are things that follow them and can potentially impact the success of their future, as far as college admissions, as far as military admissions, and background checks… that’s detrimental,” she said.
The incident has also had an emotional impact on Isaiah, who had his first interaction with law enforcement at age 12. The suspension has also impacted Isaiah’s education. “His love for learning is diminishing,” Curtis said.
Both parents admit they knew the school was in a tough position going into a new academic year during a pandemic. “I want to make clear that we do respect teachers as a profession,” Danielle said. “We do respect law enforcement as a profession. ... I understand we're in uncharted territory. But that's definitely not something that Isaiah should have been the victim of.”