In May 2014, according to a federal lawsuit filed Thursday, an Abilene school police officer used a pain submission maneuver called an “arm bar” to pick up a 6-year-old kindergarten student and pull him into to class. In February 2015, the same officer choked a 12-year-old student until the boy lost consciousness. Weeks later, the complaint says, the officer “slammed” a 15-year-old student “against a concrete wall and to the ground, and then handcuffed and detained him without cause,” leaving him with scars he still has today.
Now the parents of those children are suing that officer, Barry Bond, along with the City of Abilene and the Abilene Independent School District, saying Bond was never trained for his job policing children, nor was he disciplined after the violent encounters. The parents are represented by a team of lawyers at the firm Akin Gump and the University of Texas School of Law’s Civil Rights Clinic.
The lawsuit casts Abilene as the latest Texas city, after high-profile incidents in San Antonio, Round Rock and Bastrop, where police officers have been caught handling students violently. At least two of the incidents mentioned in the Abilene suit were caught on video. The complaint also details three parents’ frustrated attempts to work with school and city officials to get an apology, see the police officer disciplined, and institute new policies to prevent further violence at the hands of Abilene’s school police.
The families seek damages from Bond, who retired in January, and from the city and school district, for “mental anguish” and “suffering,” among other losses.
Abilene ISD spokesman Philip Ashby told the Observer Thursday afternoon that the district had just received a copy of the complaint and couldn’t yet comment.
Each of the three incidents described in the suit took place at the Jefferson Center, a disciplinary alternative campus for students from kindergarten to high school, where Bond had been assigned to work. In the suit, the plaintiffs argue that the city and school district have created a dangerous atmosphere in which police officers are routinely called on to enforce basic discipline.
“AISD teachers and school personnel have a consistent and widespread practice and custom of calling SROs [school resource officers] to help in incidents that do not involve criminal matters,” the suit says, “and where there is no threat of physical harm or serious property destruction.”
Ranjana Natarajan, an attorney with the UT law school’s civil rights clinic, told the Observer that Abilene ISD made a practice of using police officers for jobs well outside the proper scope of police duties.
“Schools have very different policies about how they use SROs, but there seems to be a set of best practices out there,” Natarajan said. When officers are called in to handle routine, non-violent discipline issues, she says, their presence can end up “undermining school safety.”
The complaint describes three such incidents in alarming detail.
In the first, a 6-year-old named in the suit as “E.G.” grabbed onto a door to avoid being dropped off at school by his mother, Vania Gonzalez. According to the suit, a teacher’s aide asked Gonzalez to get Bond’s help; Bond told the boy’s mother he may have to take E.G. to a “time-out room” and “rough him up.” Bond, the suit says, began yelling at the boy immediately and then, as Gonzalez looked on in fear, twisted the boy’s arms behind his back, lifted him off the ground and carried him into class. With the boy still tangled in his arms, the complaint says, Bond stuffed him into a desk, slamming his head on the desk and the corner of a chalkboard, making the boy’s head bleed. In the harrowing moments described in the lawsuit, Bond scratched the boy’s hands with his fingernails, threatened to withhold the boy’s lunch, and told his mother to leave, all of which a teacher’s aide assured Gonzalez was “normal.”
In the second incident, the complaint says a 12-year-old boy, referred to as “N.M.,” was walking back to class from the principal’s office when Bond grabbed his sweatshirt hood from behind and pulled him to the ground, hitting the boy’s head on the floor. The complaint says Bond put N.M. into a chokehold until the boy lost consciousness — possibly multiple times — while Bond told him to “stop resisting.” Then Bond handcuffed the boy and held him in his office for half an hour.
After that incident, a February 2015 Abilene Reporter-News story said Bond had been removed from the campus. But the third incident in the suit is dated to February or March, suggesting Bond may have returned to work at the school before long.
In the third incident described in the suit, a 16-year-old, named as “M.D.,” was trying to walk out of the school building after getting frustrated and leaving class. The plaintiffs say that Bond found him near the doors and “pinn[ed] him against the wall with his elbow,” wrestled him to the ground and handcuffed him with help from an 8th-grade teacher. On the walk to Bond’s office, when M.D. complained the handcuffs were too tight, the suit says, Bond slammed the boy’s head against the concrete wall and pinned him to the ground again, cutting and bruising the boy’s face.
Partly out of concern about police brutality at schools, the 2015 Legislature required officers who work in schools to be specially trained to work with children, including in “de-escalation techniques” to avoid using physical force with kids. Every officer working in schools is supposed to complete the course by June. But the law only applies to school districts of 30,000 students or more, and Abilene, with about 17,000 students, is well below that threshold.
Deborah Fowler, executive director of the advocacy group Texas Appleseed, said that the officer’s behavior, as described in the Abilene suit, suggests problems beyond a lack of training.
“You would think that any reasonable person wouldn’t require training to know that you don’t take a 6-year-old child and lift them up off the ground with their arm twisted behind their back,” she said, suggesting that the Abilene cases show the need for reform beyond extra training. It’s time, she said, to rethink how officers are being deployed in schools.
“There are a lot of orgs that are calling for complete removal of police from schools,” she said. “That hasn’t been our position.” Instead, said Fowler, schools should only call in officers to protect students and teachers “from outside forces that might come in to the school and cause harm.”
That could mean posting officers close to schools, without assigning them to walk the halls or monitor hallways during class changes. “Limit their interactions with students so they’re only there when they’re there to ensure safety,” Fowler suggested.
“At this point it seems like we’re seeing another video surface every month,” she said, “and it seems like we’re reacting from one lawsuit to the next.”