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A 7-year-old with autism was handcuffed by a school resource officer and pinned to the ground, video shows

Michael Fattaleh, a school resource officer at the Pressly School in Statesville, N.C., put a 7-year-old boy with autism in handcuffs in September 2018, according to body-camera footage of the incident. (WSOC)
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The school resource officer was not in the room when a 7-year-old boy with autism, whose mother said he was overwhelmed by the comings and goings in his classroom, began spitting inside his special-needs school in Statesville, N.C.

But when the officer, Michael Fattaleh, arrived on the scene, he put the boy in handcuffs, taunted him and pinned him to the ground, according to body-cam footage of the September 2018 incident that was recently published by WSOC.

“You ever been charged with a crime before?” Fattaleh asked, pressing the boy’s head against a pillow on the floor. “Well, you’re fixing to be.”

So began an interaction that lasted nearly 40 minutes, as the child began crying and yelling that he was in pain and two special-needs teachers looked on without intervening.

More than two years later, after the body-cam footage was released, his mother is suing the school board, the Statesville city government and Fattaleh, who resigned days after the incident from his job as a police officer. The woman, identified only as “A.G.” in the suit, alleges the parties in question violated the constitution, participated in negligence and inflicted emotional distress on her and her son.

“It is incomprehensible to me that anyone would think this response is appropriate and necessary,” Alex Heroy, a lawyer representing the family, said in an interview with The Washington Post late Monday. “You don’t need to put metal handcuffs on a 7-year-old and pin them down and turn their arm.”

Fattaleh’s lawyer, Ashley Cannon, did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Post regarding the lawsuit, which was filed Friday in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina. But in separate statements to the Charlotte Observer, Cannon and a Statesville city spokesperson said state investigators conducted an independent probe that did not result in any criminal charges.

“We strive to evaluate our processes and improve every day,” the Iredell-Statesville Board of Education said in a statement to WSOC. “We are eager to work with community agencies and partners to provide the best environment possible for every student.”

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.

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Yet, as cash-strapped city budgets and safety concerns have pushed more officers into these sensitive situations, there has 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.

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The autistic boy in Statesville, who is named only as “L.G.” in court documents, had been attending the public Pressly School’s special-needs program, which is housed in a separate building and staffed, in part, by specialists in behavioral and mental health.

On Sept. 11, 2018, the day after starting a new prescription medication, he became “agitated and verbalized being stressed out” during a series of transitions in and out of his classroom, the lawsuit said. Two teachers accompanied the 7-year-old to a “quiet room” to give him space to calm down.

They told the school resource officers they had the situation under control. But Fattaleh, who was passing by in the hallway, according to the lawsuit, saw the boy spit on the floor and then abruptly entered the room.

“Okay, I’ve got him,” he told them. “He’s mine now.”

The officer forced L.G. — who stood at 4-foot-6 and weighed about 80 pounds — to get on his knees and bound the boy’s arms behind his back in metal handcuffs, threatening to put a hood on him if he continued spitting, the lawsuit said.

“If you, my friend, are not acquainted with the juvenile justice system, you will be shortly,” Fattaleh said, now making the grade-schooler lie facedown on the floor.

At times, the body-cam video showed Fattaleh expressing some concern, asking the boy if he was okay and putting a pillow down for the 7-year-old to rest his head. But it also showed him taunting the boy and twisting his arms to the point where L.G. started crying.

“Have you ever heard the term ‘babysitter?’ ” Fattaleh asked L.G., putting his knee on the boy’s back. “I take that term literally, my friend.”

All the while, he chatted with the boy’s special education teachers, who were not identified, about football and the weather, according to the lawsuit. Neither individual intervened, and the boy was finally released from handcuffs when his mother arrived at Pressly 38 minutes later.

The scene left her “enraged, infuriated and just devastated,” she told WSOC, saying her son was effectively “tortured” and noting that he was examined for abrasions, scratches and bruises at the hospital.

As efforts to replace school resource officers with those who might be better equipped to handle similar incidents, such as psychologists or counselors, gain momentum nationwide, some parents and education officials have said that taking police out of schools could leave them less safe. The officers, they argue, can be attuned to the particular needs of a population like disabled students.

Fattaleh made a similar argument in the body-cam footage.

“I know he needs help. And I know he’s special needs,” Fattaleh told the boy’s mother as she was picking him up, according to the lawsuit. “That’s one of the reasons … I work here.”

But the boy seemed far less receptive. Although he went back to Pressly the following day, the fear and trauma left him unable to feel safe in school again. His mother has since quit her job to home-school him.