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Friday, February 20, 2009

Suit: Autistic boy was Tased

February 20, 2009
By Vic Ryckaert, Indystar.com

A middle-school student with autism was Tased twice by a Carmel police officer, according to a lawsuit filed by the boy's parents against the Police Department, one of its officers and a local school district.

According to the suit, the electrical bursts temporarily knocked the 90-pound boy unconscious during a confrontation at Creekside Middle School. The boy, who was 14 at the time, was taken to a local hospital before being released to his mother.

The suit, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Indianapolis, seeks damages for medical expenses, pain, suffering and mental anguish. The defendants are the Carmel Police Department, officer Matthew Kinkade and Carmel Clay Schools.

Carmel Clay Superintendent Barbara Underwood declined to comment, citing the pending lawsuit. Efforts to contact Kinkade and a spokesman for the Carmel Police Department were not successful Thursday.

According to the lawsuit:

On March 11, the boy, who is not named in the complaint, was dropped off at Creekside by his mother, Dianne Bell, who called to tell school officials her son was going to be late.

At the end of the day, the boy was told he was going to receive detention. At that point, the boy, who is described as having "affective disorder and has been diagnosed with autism, manic-depressive disorder and bipolar disorder," became "frustrated and began to act out."

"During this outburst he is saying outrageous things," said the Bells' attorney, Ronald Frazier, noting that the boy threatened to call members of his gang to retaliate against the teachers.

"They know there is no gang there," Frazier said. "They know he has no way of acting on what he is saying. They are taking these idle threats and calling police."

The Bells contend the school district failed to follow the guidelines they had set up to deal with the boy's outbursts -- techniques the family says would have given the boy a chance to cool off.

"When a child like (the Bells' son) starts to have emotional problems, the (individual procedure) is supposed to be followed," Frazier said. "It has specific steps that are to be taken in order to keep the child from melting totally down."

Instead, school officials dialed 911.

Officer Kinkade arrived, according to the complaint, and reacted to the boy's outbursts by grabbing him and forcing him to a bench in the school lobby.

When the physical force failed to control the 5-foot boy, Kinkade drew his Taser and shocked the boy two times until he lost consciousness, according to the complaint.

"Officer Kinkade used unreasonable and excessive force by failing to follow policies and procedures that were in place for dealing with autistic children," the suit alleges.

Frazier contends in the suit that although school officials say they advised police about the boy's condition, the Police Department says that's not so.

The Police Department has an autism response team, but it was not dispatched. Kinkade is not a member of that team, according to the suit.

"Autistic children have a great difficulty interpreting what others are thinking or feeling because they don't understand social cues," Frazier said. "(The Bell child) gets confronted with violence, with Tasers, and he is flipping out because of his sensory overload."

The suit contends Carmel police were "grossly negligent in the training of Matthew Kinkade," who joined the department in January 2006.

Noblesville Police Department Lt. Bruce Barnes, an instructor in the use of Tasers, said officers are trained to use the devices when lesser-force options are not available.

"You can use the Taser anytime anybody is punching, kicking or threatening to punch or kick," Barnes said. "We can use it when we tell someone to do something, they refuse, lesser-force options are not available and they are a credible threat to you."

Barnes declined to comment on whether the boy could have posed a credible threat to a police officer, saying he did not know the full circumstances of the incident.

Sheila Wolfe, director of the Indianapolis-based Autism Education and Training Center, said the reaction of school officials and the police officer agitated the boy.

"You need to step away and leave them alone so that they can decompress," said Wolfe, who has an autistic son in middle school in Carmel Clay. "I have a hard time believing that a trained officer would Taser a child with a disability if they fully understood the situation they were walking into.

"I know from experience that the people in Carmel (Clay schools) know better. As a school system, they have the expertise and they have the people available that know better. I'm surprised."

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